Discussing Ancient Greek Linguistics in Ancient Greek

In the last couple of days, occasioned at first by a tweet and corresponding discussions from Steven Runge, I’ve been teasing out in my head and a little bit of dialogue the difficulties of the “advanced discussion of Greek in Greek” question. It’s a question that any living language approach has to answer, one way or another. My position involves a few different angles, so let me lay them out again here.

Firstly, I don’t think you need to develop a meta-linguistic competence to talk about Greek grammar and linguistics in order to become a competent speaker/user of the language.

Secondly, I think it’s best to think of that meta-linguistic knowledge as a separate (but not entirely unrelated!) body of knowledge. Yes, meta-linguistic knowledge can help you become a more competent language user. However, the fact that one can be a highly competent speaker without a meta-linguistic knowledge, or vice versa a competent linguist of a language with very little communicative competence, suggests that these are separate.

Thirdly, meta-linguistic knowledge can be done in any language. It can be done in English, it can be done in Greek, it can be done in something else. There is a practical advantage to doing some of this, especially at the basic level, in Greek.

However, and this is point four, I think when we get to the point where we want to do complex, linguistic, exegetical, philological, discourse, literary, etc., type analyses, we have to reckon with some realities. Firstly, the language competence to, for example, read the New Testament, and the language competence to discuss these things about the New Testament, are fairly distant. The latter requires a level of competence, and domain specificity, and a body of academic knowledge, that are all additional to the former. Secondly, we should respect that not everyone looking for the former, wants to, can, or will, acquire the latter.

To demonstrate what I mean, below are three quotes from some linguisticky things I’ve read in the recent past. I chose things that I thought I’d have a shot at translating, and I’ve given you my (rough, ready, and likely problematic) Greek versions first – do yourself a favour and read the Greek before going down to the English. Can you read and process these sentences quickly, in Greek, with a reasonably clear understanding of what’s going on?

  1. τὸ ὑποθετικὸν κῶλον τὸ ἐν τῷ ἕκτῳ στίχῳ ἀρχόμενον διδάσκει τὸν ἀναγιγνώσκοντα ὅτι δεῖ τὰ ἑπόμενα κατὰ ταῦτα συνίεσθαι.
  2. πλεῖστον χρόνον, εἰ μὴ πάντοτε, ἀλλήλοις διαλεγόμεθα τῇ μὲν γλώσσῃ χρώμενοι τὴν δὲ ἐνεργεῖαν αὐτὴν, πολύπλοκον οὖσαν, μὴ περιορῶντες, ᾗπερ κῶλά τε καὶ λέξεις ποικίλας παρὰ λεπτόν παραπλασσόμεθα.
  3. μεταξύ τόπος· τὸ διαβαλλόμενον κεῖται μεταξὺ δυοῖν ἢ πλειόνων ὅρων. τὸ οὖν ὅρος κεῖται ὁποτέρωθεν τοῦ διαβαλλομένου. ἢ ἀθρόον ὃ διαμερίζεσθαι δύναται ἢ πληθυντικὰ ὄντα ἃ περιίστασθαι δύναται τὸ διαβαλλόμενον. λέγεται οὖν τὸ ὅρος ἐπὶ τῆς γενικῆς πτώσεως.


The English originals are below.

  1. The conditional clause that begins verse 6 instructs the reader that what follows must be processed in light of this.
  • Steven Runge, ‘Interpreting Constituent Order in Koine Greek’ in Linguistics and New Testament Greek: Key Issues in the Current Debate. eds. David Alan Black and Benjamin L. Merkle.

2. Most of the time, if not all of the time, we communicate with each other using language without considering the complex activity we are undertaking, forming complex words and sentences in a split second.

  • Emma L. Pavey. The Structure of Language: An Introduction to Grammatical Analysis (Kindle Locations 114-115). Kindle Edition.

3. μεταξύ : Location : A trajector is physically located in between two or more landmark The landmark is on either side of a trajector. The landmark is either a collective entity that can be split or multiple entities that can surround a trajector. The landmark is expressed in the genitive case.


Can this all be done in Ancient Greek? Yes. However let’s recognise that not everyone is interested in reading, or writing, complex linguistic content in Ancient Greek (I am, though!).

The Siblingless Son: μονογενής in Greek literature (6): the Johannine literature

Part 6 of our ongoing series (1, 2, 3, 4, and 5)

We turn now to consider the Johannine references, which are five: 1:14, 18, 3:16, 18, and 1 John 4:9. Throughout this section I content that the established meaning of ‘siblingless’ in contexts referring to persons continues to make best sense of these texts, without requiring any particular alteration for this context.

John 1:14, 18

Καὶ ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο καὶ ἐσκήνωσεν ἐν ἡμῖν, καὶ ἐθεασάμεθα τὴν δόξαν αὐτοῦ, δόξαν ὡς μονογενοῦς παρὰ πατρός, πλήρης χάριτος καὶ ἀληθείας[1]

And the Word became flesh, and set up his tent in our midst, and we have seen his glory, the glory of an only-son from a father, full of grace and truth.

I contend that the primary question for us here, given that the immediate context of the word’s usage is παρὰ πατρός, is what reason would there be to not consider the sense of μονογενής to refer to a siblingless son? Every other attestation to this point, when in the context of persons, and familial relations, works with that meaning. If the author of the gospel wanted to indicate, “unique in kind”, or a philosophical “one and only one instance”, they appear to be writing in the wrong key. Similarly, if their intention were to indicate something about the generative process itself, “only begotten”, a more explicitly generative turn of not merely phrase, but context, appears required. Both, or rather either, of those meanings is possible, in a strict sense of possible. However, a reader of the gospel upon encountering μονογενής in close connection to πατρός, is most likely, most naturally, to understand it as a reference to a single and sole son who lacks siblings. The author establishes that this is how to understand the quality or kind of the δόξα that the λόγος possesses and which the author attests to have seen.

This in turn, establishes how to read the second occurrence of μονογενής a few verses later.

θεὸν οὐδεὶς ἑώρακεν πώποτε·  μονογενὴς θεὸς ὁ ὢν εἰς τὸν κόλπον τοῦ πατρὸς ἐκεῖνος ἐξηγήσατο.[2]

No-one has ever seen God: God-the-siblingless-son, who is in his father’s bosom, he has made him known.

Two important factors ought to guide our understanding of the term here. First, that the author has just prior used the term in a familial-type context to evoke the way in which an only son bears their father’s glory. Second, that within this same verse it is a familial relationship that is also invoked. This once more suggests that the “unique” reading is lacking in content.[3] Contra Ehrman, there is no need to suppose that the phrase is itself meaningless and therefore must be a later theological correction for μονογενὴς υἱός.[4] Ehrman’s case rests on two bases. The first of these is that external support for μονογενὴς υἱός is strong, beyond the Alexandrian tradition, at least strong enough to argue for its priority. Secondly, that the meaning of μονογενὴς θεός is not understandable within the conceptual world of the Fourth Gospel’s authorship, and only sensible in light of later theological contexts.

I leave aside the textual argument, though the reader should see Kristianto’s paper which walks through the evidence.[5] The theological argument is of more interest here, because Ehrman’s argument is an instance of “lectio difficilior except if it seems too difficult.” Is it not at least likely that a scribe would consider μονογενὴς υἱός a more natural collocation than μονογενὴς θεός and correct it in that direction? Similarly, while we do not need to import 4th century, or even 3rd or 2nd century, christologies into John, nor should we assume that the gospel’s author is incapable of using the term μονογενής to expresses the idea that God (the siblingless son) makes God (the father) known.[6]

John 3:16, 18

The second pair of instances in John occur in swift succession, again in connection to each other.

16 Οὕτως γὰρ ἠγάπησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν κόσμον, ὥστε τὸν υἱὸν τὸν μονογενῆ ἔδωκεν, ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν μὴ ἀπόληται ἀλλʼ ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον.  17 οὐ γὰρ ἀπέστειλεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν υἱὸν εἰς τὸν κόσμον ἵνα κρίνῃ τὸν κόσμον, ἀλλʼ ἵνα σωθῇ ὁ κόσμος διʼ αὐτοῦ.  18 ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν οὐ κρίνεται· ὁ δὲ μὴ πιστεύων ἤδη κέκριται, ὅτι μὴ πεπίστευκεν εἰς τὸ ὄνομα τοῦ μονογενοῦς υἱοῦ τοῦ θεοῦ.[7]

For God loved the world so, that he gave his only son, that everyone believing in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world be saved through him. The one that believes in him is not condemned; condemned already, however, is the unbelieving person, because they have not believed in the name of God’s siblingless son.

Given the prior usage in John 1, the lack of any significant shift to a philosophical register here, and that both uses here modify υἱός, what reason is there to overturn the significant weight of common usage, and instead find a peculiarly Johannine theological meaning of “uniquely begotten”, except on the supposed basis of John 1? Which basis we have already addressed.

1 John 4:9


ἐν τούτῳ ἐφανερώθη ἡ ἀγάπη τοῦ θεοῦ ἐν ἡμῖν,
ὅτι τὸν υἱὸν αὐτοῦ τὸν μονογενῆ ἀπέσταλκεν ὁ θεὸς
εἰς τὸν κόσμον ἵνα ζήσωμεν διʼ αὐτοῦ. [8]

By this the love of God is made manifest in us,
that God has sent his only son,
into the world, so that we may live through him.

The author of 1 John uses μονογενής in a very Johannine manner, echoing the language of John 3 above. Insofar as there is no significant alteration from the usage in the gospel, neither is there a change in signification here. For this author, Jesus is the μονογενὴς υἱός because there are no other υἱοί of the same kind. For this same reason they reserve the term υἱός for Jesus, employing τέκνα instead to refer to believers.

[1] Eberhard Nestle et al., The Greek New Testament, 27th ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1993), Jn 1:14.

[2] Eberhard Nestle et al., The Greek New Testament, 27th ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1993), Jn 1:18.

[3] To take pains to make this obvious, when the word is taken to indicate “one of a kind” or “unique”, there must be some sense in which the referent is one of a kind. That sense is, for μονογενής, the lack of siblings. Which gives the word more content than the simple “unique” does.

[4] Ehrman, Bart D. The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament, (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1993), 78-82.

[5] Kristianto, S. ‘E valuating Bart Ehrman’s Textual Reconstruction: A Test Case on John 1:18’ Asia Journal of Theology, (31)1, (2017): 23-35.

[6] Without necessarily resolving or pre-empting how the author understands those relations to work.

[7] Eberhard Nestle et al., The Greek New Testament, 27th ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1993), Jn 3:15–18.

[8] Eberhard Nestle et al., The Greek New Testament, 27th ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1993), 1 Jn 4:9.

πυροβόλος ψυχόπτερος

Here, for your ancient Greek pleasure, I present Smashing Pumpkin’s Bullet with Butterfly Wings.



(I sing quite badly. If anyone wants to re-record with a more delightful voice, I’m very happy to assist them to do so)



λαμίᾱ ὁ κόσμος

ὡς ἐκπιουμένη

κρυπτοὶ καθαιρέται

σὲ πρὸς φλογοῖσι προῦχουσιν


τί μοι τοὔφελος

ὑπὲρ ὀδυνῶν μου;

πόθοι μέν παραδεδόμενοι

ἀγῶνος δὲ μέρος τι


ταῦτα μὴν εἰδώς

οἶμαι δεικνύναι

τὴν ψῡχὴν ἥσυχον

ὡς πάλαι Ἰώβ


μαινόμενος καίπερ

ἐν οἰκίσκῳ ἔτι γε μῦς

μαινόμενος καίπερ

ἐν οἰκίσκῳ ἔτι δὴ μῦς


εἴποι ἄν τις, ἅ ἀπολλύται ἄσωστα

μαινόμενος καίπερ

ἐν οἰκίσκῳ ἔτι γε μῦς


νῦν γε γυμνός εἰμι

οὐδὲν ἄλλο ἢ θηρίον

δύνασαι προσποιεῖσθαι

μίᾳ ἔτι καὶ θέᾳ

τί γ’ οὖν βούλει σύ

μεταβάλλεσθαι δὴ θέλω

τί σοι κέρδος ἔσται

τὰ αὐτὰ ἔτι ἕξεις;


ταῦτα μὴν εἰδώς

οἶμαι δεικνύναι

τὴν ψῡχὴν ἥσυχον

ὡς πάλαι Ἰώβ


μαινόμενος καίπερ

ἐν οἰκίσκῳ ἔτι γε μῦς

μαινόμενος καίπερ

ἐν οἰκίσκῳ ἔτι δὴ μῦς


εἴποι ἄν τις, ἅ ἀπολλύται ἄσωστα

μαινόμενος καίπερ

ἐν οἰκίσκῳ ἔτι γε μῦς


εἰπέ με μοῦνον εἶναι

εἰπέ μοι οὐδενὰ ἄλλον

μουνογενὴς ὁ Ἰησοῦς ἦν, ἦ!

εἰπέ μοι τὸν ἐκλεκτὸν ἐμέ

μουνογενὴς ὁ Ἰησοῦς ἦν, ὑπὲρ σοῦ


μαινόμενος καίπερ

ἐν οἰκίσκῳ ἔτι γε μῦς

μαινόμενος καίπερ

ἐν οἰκίσκῳ ἔτι δὴ μῦς


εἴποι ἄν τις, ἅ ἀπολλύται ἄσωστα

μαινόμενος καίπερ

ἐν οἰκίσκῳ ἔτι γε μῦς


μαινόμενος καίπερ

ἐν οἰκίσκῳ ἔτι δή …


μαινόμενος καίπερ

ἐν οἰκίσκῳ ἔτι δή

μαινόμενος καίπερ

ἐν οἰκίσκῳ ἔτι γε μῦς


εἰπέ με μοῦνον εἶναι

εἰπέ μοι οὐδενὰ ἄλλον

μουνογενὴς ὁ Ἰησοῦς ἦν, ὑπὲρ σοῦ


ἔγωγε καὶ νῦν μὴ σωθῆναι πιστεύω

ἔγωγε καὶ νῦν μὴ σωθῆναι πιστεύω

ἔγωγε καὶ νῦν μὴ σωθῆναι πιστεύω

ἔγωγε καὶ νῦν μὴ σωθῆναι πιστεύω




Duolingo, a love/hate story

I have a long and complicated relationship with Duolingo . The hate side, in short, is that I think the way Duolingo models language and thinks/treats language is fundamentally atomistic and inimical to good principles of second language acquisition. The love side is that I actually enjoy and continue to use Duolingo daily, and gain a measurable benefit from it. In this post I want to explore and reflect on these two things in light of recent and long-term experience.


According to my account, I first joined Duo in March 2012, so that’s a long time on the app. For very long periods I have been inactive. I currently have a 636 day streak, which is in large part thanks to the Scottish Gaelic course. It’s the only tree I’ve finished, and it’s where I’ve spent the bulk of my actual time.

Recently I was taken by a desire to get “all the achievements”, including probably the most difficult, “Finish #1 in the Diamond League”. Leagues, if you don’t know are randomly assigned groupings of 50 or so users, and the top 10 get promoted. So I had to reactivate leagues, work my way back up to Diamond. And Diamond can get very competitive. For the week I was committed to winning, I activated a trial of Duolingo Plus, and liberally used a few competitive tricks: (i) when you complete a level on the mobile app, you typically get a 15mins double XP boost, (ii) some lesson options give you more XP than others. So I would organise my time to complete a level, and then go flat out on maximal XP options for 15min blocks.

So, the last month and the last week in particular has seen me spend way too much time on Duolingo, and I’ll be scaling back to more normal levels from now on.

What’s bad in Duolingo?

  • Despite all the little features here and there, the fundamental building block of Duolingo courses is paired sentences. The core activity is “translate sentence X from L1 to L2 or L2 to L1”. There are tons of variations on this, on how this is accomplished : selecting the words in order, selecting missing words (cloze exercises), selecting correct endings only for targeted grammar, supplying A/B answers in L2 to an L2 prompt, reading into the microphone for a pronunciation check, etc etc.. Some of these, I admit, are not predicated on a paired sentence idea, but lying in the background is that building block. And, also to be fair, well-supported languages will accept a good variation of ‘correct’ translations in either direction for each sentence. It’s not “you must translate sentence A1 with corresponding sentence B1 only”.
  • Because this is the fundamental building block though, Duolingo is mainly training you to rapidly translate sentence to sentence. This isn’t really how language works, and it’s not how good language instruction ought to work – there’s no genuine communication here, there’s no context beyond the app, there’s no meaning exchange here. Let’s not lose sight that this is basically drills forever. The best Duolingo gets to a meaningful communication activity are the Stories feature, which presents a short L2 narrative and asks some L2 questions for comprehension as you go. That actually *is* a great feature, for the major languages supported with it.
  • The nature of the exercises, especially when they are “chose and rearrange the words”, actually narrows the options so much that it can often be too easy to figure out the meaning of a sentence without processing the L2 information at all, just because of the options you have in the L1.
  • Some courses are actually terrible. I’m often asked about the Latin course, or worse yet told by people that that’s what they’re mainly using, and I think the Latin course is dreadful. The audio is poorly executed, the course hasn’t been well-supported enough to demonstrate the syntactical variations Latin allows, and the brevity and simplicity of the course leaves a lot to be desired. For a Latin learner, I would almost certainly say don’t spend time on Duolingo , it’s drawbacks far outweigh the time you’re wasting on it.
  • The XP feature, and the league tables, are actually bad for you. As soon as you gamify and numerify something like this, the natural brain reaction is to want to earn more XP. This is even more so if you’re in the leagues. The best way to earn XP is the worst way to use Duolingo – switch off listening and recording exercises, select exercises to active double-XPs, and then do the legendary crowns, presuming you know all that content.

Re: Courses

My most completed trees, if you’re wondering, are Gaelic, and French (oddly enough, I have no particular reason to learn much French but I find it easy and appealing). That should help place the following in perspective

  • Majority European Languages are among the best supported and developed in Duolingo , not surprisingly as they are incredibly popular and Duolingo has a vested interest in making them better and better. French is a good example, it has (I believe) 210 separate skills making up 10 levels, as well as the stories feature, and more and varied exercise types.
  • Scottish Gaelic is, of all the minority languages that I’ve tried, an excellent example of what’s possible. Firstly, the initial core course was put together by a small band of volunteers in an extremely short time, and it was then expanded to a relatively robust course. It has 5 levels, just over 3500 words, and it’s got (a) good idiomatic Gaelic, (b) a thoughtful grammatical sequencing, (c) interesting, culturally appropriate content, (d) an excellent sense of humour, (e) quality native-speaker recordings that are clear.
  • Others? I’ve dabbled in the Irish course (has a few problems, from all accounts, and these have never been addressed. A bit of a worry that despite being significantly older that the Scottish Gaelic course, it has not been expanded), German, Italian, Chinese (generally good but has some odd things in it here and there in terms of sequencing), Hebrew, Greek, Japanese, Russian, Navajo, High Valyrian, and Klingon. The off-beat conlangs are undersupported courses, really. So, often the quality of the course just depends on who is putting time into improving them.

So what does Duolingo do well?

In my opinion and experience, Gaelic Duolingo did not teach me much ‘new’ in the way of grammar. Nor, probably, has it done much to improve my speaking ability. What it has done, though, is (a) introduce me to some new vocabulary that I hadn’t encountered before, (b) given me some explicit grammar practice on structures that I don’t normally use actively, (c) helped my spelling when I force myself to write in Gaelic words, (d) provided more than a few laughs.

That’s personally, and it’s because my Gaelic is beyond the Duolingo level, really. How about French? It’s harder to say, I have dabbled a little in reading French before, I have very strong Latin, and I don’t use French in my life at all. Is my knowledge of French growing? Yes, slowly. Will Duolingo “get me there”? If “there” is conversational fluency, I severely doubt it. But if “there” is “having a reservoir of useful knowledge about French that could be tapped if I wanted to actually learn French”, then I think the answer is yes.

Another good thing about Duolingo , I would put, is that because it’s a low-threshhold entry activity, which has attempted to gamify language learning and build in reward structures (for better or worse), it does “get people in”. Gaelic Duolingo has done that quite well – a large number of people signed up for the course, and while the number who continue is obviously much smaller, and the number still who go on to other learning options smaller yet, that’s all still language awareness and learner growth. Given that Duolingo Gaelic was an unfunded volunteer effort, that is a huge positive for the language.


Should you use Duolingo?

If you think Duolingo is going to get you to some kind of conversational proficiency, then you’re wrong. If you think Duolingo is going to be a bit of fun that you can sandwich into the odd spare moment here and there and get a quick 1-1.5 minute language fix, then yes. Provided you understand the caveats, and granted that some courses are far superior to others. I wouldn’t waste any time on Duolingo Latin, for instance. I would happily pass some time on quite a few languages though. And then I would take that knowledge and go leverage it into something more communicative and ultimately more useful.

How should you use it then?

Having said a qualified, “go for it if you want to”, here’s how I think Duolingo could be best used. Preferably, use it on the desktop. Switch on keyboard-input only so that you’re typing out words and learning to type and spell in the L2. Split your session over just a couple of skills : something old, something new, something in between. Don’t chase XP, and don’t think Duo is the end game, it’s a tool that will get your foot in the door of language learning.

The Siblingless Son: μονογενής in Greek literature (5): the 1st to 3rd century CE

Part 5 of our ongoing series (1, 2, 3, and 4)

1st to 3rd CE usages

Rather than turn directly to John, which is really the interpretative crux, we turn now to consider a range of usages, primarily non-Christian, across the first three centuries CE. Our focus here is on seeing that the patterns of usage we have already encountered, continue to be reflected in most authors. Importantly non-theological usages continued to abound, and did not dramatically shift in meaning during this period. I have excluded here, the references to μονογενής found in the longer recension of Ignatius, 15 in total, as more likely dated to the 4th century). Also, the 9 references in pseudo-Clement texts.


In Apion’s Fragmenta de glossis Homericis, μονογενής is included as a part of a definition for the word τηλύγετος.

τηλύγετος· ὁ μονογενής (Ι 143). καὶ ὁ (15) μετὰ θηλυκῶν μόνος ἄρρην. καὶ ὁ ἤδη προηκούσῃ τῇ ἡλικίᾳ τεκνωθείς (Ε 153).[1]

“Telugetos”: the only child. Also, an only son born after girls. Also, one born to a woman already advanced in age.

Clement’s usage (1 Cl 25.2.1) in reference to the phoenix is sometimes taken as evidence for the understanding of ‘unique’, but a closer reading is warranted.

(2) Ὄρνεον γάρ ἐστιν, ὃ προσονομάζεται φοίνιξ· τοῦτο μονογενὲς ὑπάρχον ζῇ ἔτη πεντακόσια, γενόμενόν τε ἤδη πρὸς ἀπόλυσιν τοῦ ἀποθανεῖν αὐτὸ σηκὸν ἑαυτῷ ποιεῖ ἐκ λιβάνου καὶ σμύρνης καὶ τῶν λοιπῶν ἀρωμάτων, εἰς ὃν πληρωθέντος τοῦ χρόνου εἰσέρχεται καὶ τελευτᾷ.[2]

For there is a bird, named the Phoenix. This [bird] being the only one, lives 500 years, and when it approaches its demise, makes for itself a tomb from frankincense and myrrh, and the other spices, and when the time is fulfilled it enters this tomb and dies.

Granted, it’s not as clear in the case of Clement whether one should take μονογενής as (i) unique as there only being one, or (ii) sole in absence of siblings. This is because they amount to the same thing in this case – there is only one phoenix, and it lacks siblings. It does not quite match to the other biological/classificatory uses, as in Theophrastes, because Clement’s argument is not that there is one ‘species’ of Phoenix, with multiple specimens, but rather a unique species with a single specimen. There are no other phoenixes. That said, a generic sense of ‘unique’ doesn’t do us enough service – unique in what respect remains the right question to ask.

There are eight references in Plutarch, writing in the second half of the first century CE. These include Lycurgus 31.4.6

υἱὸν δὲ λέγεται μονογενῆ καταλιπεῖν Ἀντίωρον·[3]

It is also said that he left behind an only son, Antiorus.

This is from the end of Plutarch’s Lycurgus, dealing with the death of Lycurgus and the end-matter. Here, again, the pair υἱὸν … μονογενή indicates a sole son with no siblings.

De E apud Delphos

πέντε τοὺς πάντας ὄντας καὶ μὴ πλείονας. οὐ μὴν ἀλλὰ κἂν εἷς οὗτος ᾖ μονογενής, ὡς οἴεται καὶ Ἀριστοτέλης[4]

But although this one [cosmos] were unique, as Aristotle thinks…

In this text concerned with the investigation of the inscription of Ε or ΕΙ at Delphi, Plutarch includes this use of μονογενής which fits our philosophical category.

We find instances also in De Defectu Oraculorum, from DDO 423a12 and DDO 423c12, both of which are philosophical usages, and anaphoric to Plato’s Timaeus 31b and 92c.[5] Likewise De Fraterne Amore, 480e8, referring back to (and critiquing) Hesiod’s Works and Days 376.[6] A more interesting occurrence comes in De facie in orbe lunae 28:

ὁ μὲν ἐκ τριῶν δύο ποιεῖ τὸν ἄνθρωπον ὁ δ’ ἓν
ἐκ δυοῖν, καὶ ὁ μέν ἐστιν ἐν τῇ <γῇ> τῆς Δήμητρος, …
ἐν αὐτῇ τελεῖν καὶ τοὺς νεκροὺς Ἀθηναῖοι Δημητρείους
ὠνόμαζον τὸ παλαιόν· <ὁ> δ’ ἐν τῇ σελήνῃ τῆς Φερσε-
φόνης· καὶ σύνοικός ἐστι τῆς μὲν χθόνιος ὁ Ἑρμῆς τῆς    (5)
δ’ οὐράνιος. λύει δ’ αὕτη μὲν ταχὺ καὶ μετὰ βίας τὴν
ψυχὴν ἀπὸ τοῦ σώματος, ἡ δὲ Φερσεφόνη πράως καὶ
χρόνῳ πολλῷ τὸν νοῦν ἀπὸ τῆς ψυχῆς καὶ διὰ τοῦτο μο-
νογενὴς κέκληται· μόνον γὰρ γίνεται τὸ βέλτιστον τοῦ
ἀνθρώπου διακρινόμενον αὐτῆς.[7]

One death renders a human from three things to two, and a second death renders them one thing from two; the former is on Demeter’s earth, and in this “to make an end”.. the Athenians of old called the dead “Demetrians”; the latter is on Persephone’s moon; associated with the former is terrestrial Hermes, with the later celestial Hermes. On earth, Demeter swiftly and violently separated the soul from the body, while there Persephone gently and gradually separates the mind from the soul, and for this reason is called monogenes; for the best part of the human best comes into existence alone (μόνον…γίνεται), separated off by her.

This is an instance of etymologising based on a psychological/philosophical reading of myth. In contrasting Demeter and Persephone, Plutarch’s narrator is arguing for a tripartite division of the human, and Persephone is responsible for separating of the mind of the mind from the soul, and this gives him occasion to use μονογενής.[8] The usage here both plays off the epithet μονογενής as applied to Persephone, but also engages in word play, where the mind coming to exist singly and separately, i.e. without ψυχή or σῶμα, is the reason for calling the mind μονογενές, and so by extension Persephone μονογενής because she is the agent who renders it μόνος.

Flavius Arrianus has a single reference, which indicates a sole daughter. It is substantially the same account as Megasthenes’, discussed above.[9] Apollonius the sophist repeats the Homeric gloss of Apion.[10]

There are also eight instances in the fragments of Philo of Byblos (Herennius Philo), though these involve considerable repetition. They universally involve an account of Phoenician theogony in which Kronos (El) has a μονογενής son, Zeus, (Ἰεούδ, or Ἰεδούδ).[11]

The Compendium Herodiani operis περὶ κλίσεως ὀνομάτων has a grammatical usage.[12]

Another philosophical usage occurs in Aëtius’ De placitis reliquiae, in giving a quotation on Parminides opinion about the universe.[13]

The Greek apocalypse of Esdras, variously dated, refers to the μονογενῆν … υἱόν. [14] Regardless of precise dating, it can be subsumed under derivative Christian usage.

In Galen we find another usage that is probably to be subscribed under ‘natural scientific’. It refers to each of the internal organs being ‘one of a kind’ in relation to the others, not sharing the same function or relation.[15]

There are three occurrences in Apollonius Dyscolus’ De adverbiis, and 244 in the works of Aelius Herodianus (including Ps-Herodianus). Beyond that all future references are well past the New Testament corpus, and while a few non-Christian usages are found, they are all along the lines we have previously established here.



[1] A. Ludwich, “Über die homerischen Glossen Apions,” Philologus 74 (1917) 209-247; 75 (1919) 95-103
Retrieved from: http://stephanus.tlg.uci.edu/Iris/Cite?1152:003:76138.
Apion is dated to early 1st century CE.

[2] A. Jaubert, Clément de Rome. Épître aux Corinthiens [Sources chrétiennes 167. Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1971]: 98-204.
Retrieved from: http://stephanus.tlg.uci.edu/Iris/Cite?1271:001:32442

[3] B. Perrin, Plutarch’s lives, vol. 1, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1914 (repr. 1967): 204-302.
Retrieved from: http://stephanus.tlg.uci.edu/Iris/Cite?0007:004:76475

[4] W. Sieveking, Plutarchi moralia, vol. 3, Leipzig: Teubner, 1929 (repr. 1972): 1-24.
Retrieved from: http://stephanus.tlg.uci.edu/Iris/Cite?0007:090:20242


[5] W. Sieveking, Plutarchi moralia, vol. 3, Leipzig: Teubner, 1929 (repr. 1972): 59-122.

[6] M. Pohlenz, Plutarchi moralia, vol. 3, Leipzig: Teubner, 1929 (repr. 1972): 221-254.
Retrieved from: http://stephanus.tlg.uci.edu/Iris/Cite?0007:097:9738

[7] M. Pohlenz, Plutarchi moralia, vol. 5.3, 2nd edn., Leipzig: Teubner, 1960: 31-89.
Retrieved from: http://stephanus.tlg.uci.edu/Iris/Cite?0007:126:90471


[8] Cherniss and Helmbold claim that this is an epithet for both Hecate and Persephone. Their references to Hesiod and Apollonius of Rhodes are both to Hecate. Orphic Hymn 28 (to Persephone) does indeed refer to her as a μονογενής. Though it is unclear on what basis, except that Persephone appears to be the only offspring of Zeus and Demeter together. They also suggest that the -γενής has a causative, not a passive sense, which would be remarkable.

[9] Flavius Arrianus, Historia Indica 8.6.6. Writing in the 2nd century.

[10] Apollonios, Lexicon Homericum 152.18.

[11] Herrenius Philo Fragmenta 3c 780 F 2 164; 3c 790 F 3b 11-12 as found in F. Jacoby, Die Fragmente der griechischen Historiker (FGrH) #790, Leiden: Brill, 1923-1958 (repr. 1954-1969): 3C:803-824.

2 219; 4 12 (x2), 5 23-24. as found in K. Müller, Fragmenta historicorum Graecorum (FHG) 3, Paris: Didot, 1841-1870: 563-576.


[13] H. Diels, Doxographi Graeci, Berlin: Reimer, 1879 (repr. Berlin: De Gruyter, 1965): 284, line 15. Retrieved from: http://stephanus.tlg.uci.edu/Iris/Cite?0528:002:168

[14] C. Tischendorf, Apocalypses apocryphae, Leipzig: Mendelssohn, 1866: 31, line 22.
Retrieved from: http://stephanus.tlg.uci.edu/Iris/Cite?1157:001:15450

[15] P.H. De Lacy, Galen. On the doctrines of Hippocrates and Plato [Corpus medicorum Graecorum vol., pts. 1-2. Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1978]: 1:65-358; 2:360-608.  Book 6, chapter 8, section 31, line 6   investigate exact location and look at how to cite this
Retrieved from: http://stephanus.tlg.uci.edu/Iris/Cite?0057:032:460122

Introducing καθ’ ἡμέραν

An old tweet came back to life recently on my timeline, as we saw the launch of Daily Dose of Aramaic. The tweet had me tagged as someone who could possibly do a ‘Daily Dose of Greek’ but monolingually in Greek. At the time I don’t think I quite had the experience and wherewithal to make it happen. But, having done a bit more experimentation, and a lot more Greek speaking, it’s reappearance in my timeline nudged me – maybe it was time to make it happen.

And it is. Today I’m pleased to announce the launch of καθ’ ἡμέραν, a project in which I will provide (in theory 5 a week) verse by verse short videos (4~5 mins) explaining or discussing New Testament (and possibly LXX) verses in Koine Greek. You can find the youtube channel here, our twitter account here, and the first video is here. You can also subscribe to a podcast version of the videos (i.e., audio only), through Anchor.fm or (shortly) any good podcast app.

At this point, I plan to spend a long time working in John first of all, because I think it’s the most accessible NT text from a pedagogical standpoint.

(Acknowledgements to Dr. Robert Plummer, who got Daily Dose of Greek running such a long time ago (though I will also confess to never having watched a full episode.)


A living Ancient Greek project: LingQ’s 60 Mini-Stories

I have been impressed and inspired by the conversion (to communicative approaches), commitment, and creativity of Carla Hurt over at Found in Antiquity in recent months, and especially the project to translate LingQ’s 60 Mini-Stories into Latin. I am keen to see the same for Greek, so I’ve set up the following project to collaborate on it.

The Project

This is an open Creative Commons project. LingQ, created the original 60 Mini-Stories in English, and they have made them available in the public domain. The stories revolve around ordinary situations, feature many repetitions of vocabulary, and are already available in 39 other languages.

There are few good resources for contemporary spoken Ancient Greek. No, I’m not going to spend this post defending why you should, or talking about why not just speak Modern Greek (for the record, if you want to learn Modern Greek, please do so!). Many of the conversational materials for Ancient Greek assume an ancient, or at best medieval or early modern setting. It’s certainly possible to use Ancient Greek to speak about contemporary things (with a little bit of creative but conservative neologising), but few people do, and less people have the confidence. I believe it’s possible, and it’s beneficial – few things are as helpful in learning to read Ancient Greek texts as having an active competency in the language.

Sharing and Acknowledgments:

These stories are provided by LingQ, who require a link wherever they are shared. Many thanks to them for making these public domain. Thanks to Carla for getting the Latin versions off to a great start and inspiring me to do the same for Greek.


LingQ 60 Mini-Stories, Ancient Greek: Stories 1-10

LingQ 60 Mini-Stories, Ancient Greek: Stories 11-20 (coming soon)

LingQ 60 Mini-Stories, Ancient Greek: Stories 21-30 (coming soon)

LingQ 60 Mini-Stories, Ancient Greek: Stories 31-40 (coming soon)

LingQ 60 Mini-Stories, Ancient Greek: Stories 41-50 (coming soon)

LingQ 60 Mini-Stories, Ancient Greek: Stories 51-60 (coming soon)

Contact and Guidelines

You can reach me via email: thepatrologist@gmail.com to be added as an editor. I’ll also co-ordinate style and progress across the whole project. We’ll look to do some audio and possible video later on as well.

The Siblingless Son: μονογενής in Greek literature (4): the New Testament (mostly) and Josephus

Part 4 of our ongoing series (1, 2 and 3)

Josephus and the New Testament Corpus

We turn now to consider occurrences in both the New Testament and Josephus. In the New Testament we find nine, in Josephus four.[1]

The gospel of Luke contains three instances, Luke 7:12, 8:42, 9:38. These are all uncontroversial. Luke 7:12 refers to a widow’s only son, 8:42 to Jairus’ sole daughter, and 9:38 to a son, further specified as an only child.[2]

A single occurrence is found in Hebrews 11:17 which has been taken as a support for the argument against ‘only-begotten’ or more broadly ‘only child’, on the basis that it refers to Isaac as Abraham’s only child, and that Isaac is in fact not an only child.[3] It is worth considering Josephus’ usage before forming a conclusion on Hebrews 11:17.

Josephus’ uses all occur in Antiquities of the Jews, 1.222.1, 2.182.1, 5.264.3, 20.20.3. We will consider these in reverse order of relevance.

2.181-2 lists a single child, Usi, for Dan, as part of a recounting of Jacob and the 70 who went down to Egypt (2.177-183).[4] The second occurrence (5.264.3) is Josephus’ account of Jephthah, cf. Judges 11 discussed above, and unambiguously denotes Jephthah’s daughter as an only child.[5]

The third instance (20.20) is interesting because it is, like Hebrews, an instance of someone who is not technically an only child. Josephus writes:

ἦν δὲ αὐτῷ Μονόβαζος τούτου πρεσβύτερος ἐκ τῆς Ἑλένης γενόμενος ἄλλοι τε παῖδες ἐξ ἑτέρων γυναικῶν. τὴν μέντοι πᾶσαν εὔνοιαν ὡς εἰς μονογενῆ τὸν Ἰζάτην ἔχων φανερὸς ἦν.[6]

He [Bazeus king of Adiabene] had [the son] Monobazos, his [Izates] elder brother also from Helena, and he had other sons by other wives additionally. Yet he [Bazeus] openly placed all his affections on Izates as one would an only child.

Here it is not the status of an only child, but the treatment as an only-child that is in view. The idea that μονογενής cannot mean ‘only child’ because it is applied to people who aren’t sole offspring, is a linguistic non-sequitur, no more valid than insisting that someone cannot refer to a male child as ‘son’ unless they are biologically the parent of them.

So, when we turn to the fourth (1.222), and find Isaac described as a μονογενής, we do not have to suppose that because Isaac is not strictly speaking an only child, this somehow reconfigures the meaning of μονογενής to either not mean ‘only-child’, or to primarily mean ‘beloved’.

(222)   Ἴσακον δὲ ὁ πατὴρ Ἅβραμος ὑπερηγάπα μονογενῆ ὄντα καὶ ἐπὶ γήρως οὐδῷ κατὰ δωρεὰν αὐτῷ τοῦ θεοῦ γενόμενον. προεκαλεῖτο δὲ εἰς εὔνοιαν καὶ τὸ φιλεῖσθαι μᾶλλον ὑπὸ τῶν γονέων καὶ αὐτὸς ὁ παῖς ἐπιτηδεύων πᾶσαν ἀρετὴν καὶ τῆς τε τῶν πατέρων θεραπείας ἐχόμενος καὶ περὶ τὴν τοῦ θεοῦ θρησκείαν (223) ἐσπουδακώς.

Father Abraham greatly loved Isaac, being an only son, and because he had come to him as a gift given to him by God, on the threshold of old age. He called forth goodwill and greater love from his parents, both the child himself by exercising virtue, and maintaining the cultus of the fathers, and being zealous in respect to the worship of God.


The connotation of being especially loved is clear, but the denotation of the term is not thereby obviated. This remains the case when returning our attention to Hebrews 11:17:

Πίστει προσενήνοχεν Ἀβραὰμ τὸν Ἰσαὰκ πειραζόμενος, καὶ τὸν μονογενῆ προσέφερεν ὁ τὰς ἐπαγγελίας ἀναδεξάμενος,[7]

By faith Abraham, being tested, brought Isaac, and he that had received the promises offered up his only child.


Despite the theological distance between the writer to the Hebrews and Josephus, both concur in seeing Isaac as a sole child in relation to the promise, and the theological horizon of the Genesis text. No linguistic acrobatics need be performed to avoid a relatively straightforward, if slightly figurative meaning. It is not because Isaak has no siblings at all that he is called μονογενής, but because the Scriptures scrupulously view him as having no siblings.[8]

Although the Johannine texts should chronologically, be treated at this point, since  they have been the site where a unique, and uniquely theological meaning, has most often been contested, I defer them until we have pushed our survey further across the first few centuries.

[1] Luke 7:12, 8:42, 9:38, John 1:14, 18, 3:16, 18, Hebrews 11:17, 1 John 4:9.

[2] … δέομαί σου ἐπιβλέψαι ἐπὶ τὸν υἱόν μου, ὅτι μονογενής μοί ἐστιν.

[3] James Bulman, ‘The Only Begotten Son,’ Calvin Theological Journal 1983: 56-79.

[4] AJ 2.182. Δάνῳ δὲ (182) μονογενὲς ἦν παιδίον Οὖσις.

  1. Niese, Flavii Iosephi opera, vols. 1-4, Berlin: Weidmann, 1:1887; 2:1885: 3:1892; 4:1890 (repr. 1955): 1:3-362; 2:3-392; 3:3-409; 4:3-320.
    Retrieved from: http://stephanus.tlg.uci.edu/Iris/Cite?0526:001:184075

[5]  AJ 5.264. ὑπήντησε γὰρ ἡ θυγάτηρ αὐτῷ, μονογενὴς δ’ ἦν, ἔτι παρθένος.

  1. Niese, Flavii Iosephi opera, vols. 1-4, Berlin: Weidmann, 1:1887; 2:1885: 3:1892; 4:1890 (repr. 1955): 1:3-362; 2:3-392; 3:3-409; 4:3-320.
    Retrieved from: http://stephanus.tlg.uci.edu/Iris/Cite?0526:001:557155

[6] AJ 20.20 ἦν δὲ αὐτῷ Μονόβαζος τούτου πρεσβύτερος ἐκ τῆς Ἑλένης γενόμενος ἄλλοι τε παῖδες ἐξ ἑτέρων γυναικῶν. τὴν μέντοι πᾶσαν εὔνοιαν ὡς εἰς μονογενῆ τὸν (21) Ἰζάτην ἔχων φανερὸς ἦν.

  1. Niese, Flavii Iosephi opera, vols. 1-4, Berlin: Weidmann, 1:1887; 2:1885: 3:1892; 4:1890 (repr. 1955): 1:3-362; 2:3-392; 3:3-409; 4:3-320. Emphasis mine.
    Retrieved from: http://stephanus.tlg.uci.edu/Iris/Cite?0526:001:2462553

[7] Michael W. Holmes, The Greek New Testament: SBL Edition (Lexham Press; Society of Biblical Literature, 2011–2013), Heb 11:17.

[8] Gen 25:1-4 not withstanding. cf. 1 Chr 1:32-33, Gen 25:6, which treat Keturah’s status as a concubine.

The Siblingless Son: μονογενής in Greek literature (3): the LXX and the Hebrew Bible

Part 3 of our ongoing series (1 and 2)

Monogenes and the Hebrew Bible

We turn now to consider the usage of μονογενής in the LXX, its relation to the Hebrew word  yachid (יָחִיד), and the reverse relation of yachid to ἀγαπητός. The LXX has ten occurrences of μονογενής. One is a post-LXX Christian text and can be set aside for now.[1]


Judges 11:34 depicts the Jephthah’s return home in light of his ominous oath in vv30-31. The text intentionally highlights that he has only one child:

καὶ αὕτη μονογενὴς αὐτῷ ἀγαπητή, καὶ οὐκ ἔστιν αὐτῷ πλὴν αὐτῆς υἱὸς ἢ θυγάτηρ.[2]        And she was his beloved, only child, and he had no son or daughter apart from her.

The relevant Hebrew text combines both the adverb raq and the key term yachid, which may explain the double-translation of μονογενής and ἀγαπητή.

ווְרַק֙ הִ֣יא יְחִידָ֔ה אֵֽין־ל֥וֹ מִמֶּ֛נּוּ בֵּ֖ן אֹו־בַֽת׃[3]

The repetition, and then the somewhat redundant clarification that there is no other son nor daughter, is designed to heighten the pathos of the situation. It also instances yachid as the most common translation basis for μονογενής in the LXX.


The story of Tobit strengthens the case that μονογενής refers primarily to a siblingless child, since this is part of the emotional impact of the story. The term appears three times, in 3:15 in Sarra’s prayer as she laments that although she is her father’s only child, his line will expire without an heir.[4] Of note, she also uses μία to describe herself in 3:10. She is again described as a μονογενής in 6:11.[5] The term then appears once more in 8:17, this time in the plural μονογενεῖς, as Ragouel praises God for having mercy on these two only-children.[6] The usage is consistent throughout this text.


Poetic usages

Psalms of David

There are three occurrences in the Psalms.[7] The first is relatively straightforward, in that μονογενής occurs with πτωχός, and is part of a depiction of being alone and in a desperate condition. Whether yachid is properly translated here is besides our main point, the translation has understood it as ‘alone’ in the context of familial relations.

24:16 (25:16)  ἐπίβλεψον ἐπʼ ἐμὲ καὶ ἐλέησόν με,
ὅτι μονογενὴς καὶ πτωχός εἰμι ἐγώ.

Look upon me and have mercy on me,
because I am an only child and poor.

The two other uses are more difficult, in that μονογενής appears to have undergone some extension of meaning.

21:21 (22:21)  ῥῦσαι ἀπὸ ῥομφαίας τὴν ψυχήν μου
καὶ ἐκ χειρὸς κυνὸς τὴν μονογενῆ μου

Save my life from the sword,
and my monogenēs from the hand of the dog.

34:17 (35:17)  κύριε, πότε ἐπόψῃ;
ἀποκατάστησον τὴν ψυχήν μου ἀπὸ τῆς κακουργίας αὐτῶν,
ἀπὸ λεόντων τὴν μονογενῆ μου.

Lord, when will you take notice?
Restore my life from their wickedness,
and my monogenēs from lions.


Here יְחִידָתִֽי appears as feminine, and ‘soul’ or ‘life’ is probably to be inferred, certainly on the basis of the parallelism. Modern English versions have all taken it in this sense. It may be that the connotation of treasured, dearly-beloved, as attached to a sole child, has been fronted in the significance of yachid, and that the LXX has attempted to preserve this in its translations here.

Psalms of Solomon

Psalms of Solomon 18:4 presents an interesting text in terms of later Christian usage, as it juxtaposes πρωτότοκος and μονογενής directly.

ἡ παιδεία σου ἐφʼ ἡμᾶς ὡς υἱὸν πρωτότοκον μονογενῆ
ἀποστρέψαι ψυχὴν εὐήκοον ἀπὸ ἀμαθίας ἐν ἀγνοίᾳ. [8]

Your discipline is upon us as on a firstborn, an only son,
to turn back the obedient soul from ignorant stupidity.[9]

The referent is Israel, in a familiar depiction of Israel as a nation, as God’s ‘son’, but here used figuratively as a son under discipline. That sonship is modified as both ‘firstborn’, and ‘siblingless’. These, of course, may both be true – a first born child is naturally siblingless until a second child is born. Nonetheless, the much later distinction of Athanasius and Gregory of Nyssa still holds: μονογενής refers to an absence of siblings, but πρωτότοκος is said in relation to siblings (whether they are present or not).[10] Here the two words evoke two different conceptual and affective dimensions. For Israel as πρωτότοκος is heir, as μονογενής is cherished and delighted son.

Wisdom of Solomon 7:22

In Wisdom 7:22 we find another variant usage:

Ἔστιν γὰρ ἐν αὐτῇ πνεῦμα νοερόν, ἅγιον, μονογενές, πολυμερές, λεπτόν, εὐκίνητον, τρανόν, ἀμόλυντον, σαφές, ἀπήμαντον, φιλάγαθον, ὀξύ, [11]

For there is in her a spirit that is intelligent, holy, unique, of many parts, subtle, free-moving, lucid, unpolluted, distinct, invulnerable, loving the good, sharp,[12]

This term here has the sense of ‘unique’. Given the overlap between both (a) a personification of Wisdom (the referent here), and (b) philosophical language, and that the direct referent is πνεῦμα, this sense marks an understandable departure from the general ‘siblingless’ signification in reference to persons.


There is a final reference in Odes 14.13, which is clearly a later, Christian composition and built on the development of μονογενής as a specific title for Jesus.

(13) κύριε υἱὲ μονογενὴ
(14) Ἰησοῦ Χριστὲ

Yachid when it’s not μονογενής

We should also consider, albeit briefly, the instances where yachid has been translated otherwise in the LXX. There are eight such instances, translated with three other terms in the LXX. These are Gen 22:2, 22:12, 22:16, Jer 6:26, Amos 8:10, and Zech 12:10 where yachid is rendered with ἀγαπητός. Proverbs 4:3 has ἀγαπώμενος, virtually equivalent in meaning. LXX Ps 67:7 has μονοτρόπους, referring to those that are alone/lonely.[13] The preponderance of the choice of ἀγαπητός suggests that the connotation of dearly beloved associated with an only child is the fore-grounded element for LXX translations of yachid. This is suggestive, though not determinative, for a consideration of the New Testament corpus.[14]

[1] Odes 14.13.

[2] Judges 11.34, Codex Alexandrinus. Vaticanus differs slightly but not materially:

καὶ ἦν αὕτη μονογενής, οὐκ ἦν αὐτῷ ἕτερος υἱὸς ἢ θυγάτηρ.

[3] Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia : With Westminster Hebrew Morphology., electronic ed. (Stuttgart;  Glenside PA: German Bible Society;  Westminster Seminary, 1996), Jdg 11:34.

[4] Tobias 3.15 […] μονογενής εἰμι τῷ πατρί μου, καὶ οὐχ ὑπάρχει αὐτῷ παιδίον, ὃ κληρονομήσει αὐτόν, οὐδὲ ἀδελφὸς ἐγγὺς οὐδὲ ὑπάρχων αὐτῷ υἱός, ἵνα συντηρήσω ἐμαυτὴν αὐτῷ γυναῖκα.

[5] Tobias 6.11 εἶπεν ὁ ἄγγελος τῷ παιδαρίῳ Ἄδελφε, σήμερον αὐλισθησόμεθα παρὰ Ραγουηλ, καὶ αὐτὸς συγγενής σού ἐστιν, καὶ ἔστιν αὐτῷ θυγάτηρ μονογενὴς ὀνόματι Σαρρα,[5]

[6] Tobias 8.17 εὐλογητὸς εἶ ὅτι ἠλέησας δύο μονογενεῖς, ποίησον αὐτοῖς, δέσποτα, ἔλεος, συντέλεσον τὴν ζωὴν αὐτῶν ἐν ὑγιείᾳ μετὰ εὐφροσύνης καὶ ἐλέους.[6]

[7] Throughout I provide first the LXX reference, then the MT reference in brackets.

[8] Septuaginta: With Morphology, electronic ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1979), Ps Sol 18:4.

[9] NETS translation.

[10] See Athanasius, Contra Arianos 2.62, Gregory of Nyssa, De Perfectione, Jaeger (ed), 200-1.

[11] Septuaginta: With Morphology, electronic ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1979), Wis 7:22–23.

[12] NETS translation

[13] MT 68:7, EVV 68:6.

[14] If anything, it may suggest more about the description in the synoptics of Jesus as ὁ υἱός μου ὁ ἀγαπητός as in Matt 3:17 and similar. Namely, that the synoptic references to Jesus as ὁ ἀγαπητός are their equivalents to John’s ὁ μονογενής.

The Siblingless Son: μονογενής in Greek literature (2): 8th-1st century BCE

This is the second in our series examining the word μονογενής. We not turn out attention to the range of usage across Greek authors and literature.

8th to 6th Century

The term μονογενής does not appear frequently in early Greek literature, with three instances in Hesiod, two in Aesop, and one in Aeschylus. All occurrences comport with the meaning of ‘lacking siblings.’


The first two of Hesiod’s references appear in Theogony, both in reference to Hecate.[1] They are in relatively close proximity, with the first in line 426:

οὐδ’, ὅτι μουνογενής, ἧσσον θεὰ ἔμμορε τιμῆς [426]
καὶ γεράων γαίῃ τε καὶ οὐρανῷ ἠδὲ θαλάσσῃ,[2]

Nor, because she is an only child, does the goddess receive less respect,
and honours on land and sea and sky.

And the second in line 448:

οὕτω τοι καὶ μουνογενὴς ἐκ μητρὸς ἐοῦσα
πᾶσι μετ’ ἀθανάτοισι τετίμηται γεράεσσι.[3]

So then, being an only-child of her mother,
she is honoured among all the immortals

Hesiod’s usage establishes that from the 8th century μονογενής denotes an only child. In Works and Days we encounter an attributive use:

μουνογενὴς δὲ πάις εἴη πατρώιον οἶκον [376]
φερβέμεν· ὣς γὰρ πλοῦτος ἀέξεται ἐν μεγάροισιν·
γηραιὸς δὲ θάνοι ἕτερον παῖδ’ ἐγκαταλείπων.[4]

There should be an only child to feed the father’s household,
for so wealth will increase in your household;
but if you leave behind a second son, you should die old.

Here the concern is with the division of wealth and property, where passing on an inheritance to a single child will see it increase, whereas dividing it among multiple sons endangers the patrimony. This concern is generally held in tension to the more common motif that we see in texts below, where an only child represents an increased danger in that the family line depends upon the survival of a single person.


Moving to the 6th century, we find two occurrences in Aesop’s Fables. These two represent alternate versions of a single story:

υἱόν τις γέρων δειλὸς μονογενῆ ἔχων γενναῖον κυνηγεῖν ἐφιέμενον εἶδε τοῦτον καθ’
ὕπνους ὑπὸ λέοντος ἀναλωθέντα.

A cowardly old man had a noble son, an only child, and saw him in a dream going out to
hunt and then killed by a lion

(296aliter) Υἱόν τις ἔχων μονογενῆ ἀνδρεῖον εἶδε καθ’ ὕπνον ὑπὸ λέοντος θνῄσκειν.[5]

A certain person had a brave son, an only child, and saw him killed by a lion in a dream.

In both versions, a father of an only son sees that son killed by a lion in a dream. The use of μονογενής sets up part of the pathos of the story, in that all the father’s hopes and love rest upon the sole heir.[6] This connotation is prevalent throughout later usages.


The final occurrence in this early period is in Aeschlyus, Agamemnon 898. The context of the passage is Clytemnestra speaking, in an ironic/sarcastic description of how she would hail Agamemnon’s return:

νῦν, ταῦτα πάντα τλᾶσ’, ἀπενθήτωι φρενὶ   (895)
λέγοιμ’ ἂν ἄνδρα τόνδε τῶν σταθμῶν κύνα,
σωτῆρα ναὸς πρότονον, ὑψηλῆς στέγης
στῦλον ποδήρη, μονογενὲς τέκνον πατρί,
ὁδοιπόρωι διψῶντι πηγαῖον ῥέος,
καὶ γῆν φανεῖσαν ναυτίλοις παρ’ ἐλπίδα,   (900)
κάλλιστον ἦμαρ εἰσιδεῖν ἐκ χείματος. [7]

But now, having endured all these things, with my heart freed from grief,
I would address my husband, as dog of the dwelling,
forestay saviour of the ship,
a high roof’s
pillar, a father’s only son,
spring water to a thirsty traveller
the sighting of land to sailors beyond hope,
fairest day seen after a storm.

The effect of μονογενής here is again the sense of focused affection and hope placed upon a sole child and heir (in implied contrast to the diffused affection and increased household survival odds of multiple heirs). Agamemnon, we must note, is not actually a siblingless son,[8] but this is exactly the point, as Clytemnestra recounts how she would regard him, in a series of figures of ‘longed-for hopes,’ and as the profession of her love in face of her sufferings at home in his absence.

5th to 1st Century

As the surviving number of texts increases, so too the number of occurrences. It is also in this period we see several derivative usages emerge in particular contexts. Hence in this section, we proceed by categories rather than strict chronology.

Only child and only son.

Two occurrences are found in Herodotus, both appear to refer to an only son (παῖδα μουνογενέα; παῖδα […] μουνογενέα) without concern for whether daughters are present.[9] This is also the use found in Plato’s Critias, where it is an only daughter (and presumably no son).[10] In Leges, Plato appears to use a slightly extended sense of the term in referring to the royal lineage (in Sparta) being made twofold from a single line.[11] Megasthenes also describes an only daughter, this time in explicit contrast to many sons.[12] Apollonius of Rhodes revives the Hesiodic reference to Hecate in Argonautica.[13]

There are two instances in Diodorus of Sicily, both times referring to a daughter. The first is to Hippodemeia, only daughter of Oenomaus.[14] The second is Tyro, daughter of Salmoneus.[15] Similarly there are three occurrences in Dionysius of Halicarnassus, first to an only daughter of Hersilia,[16] then twice to an only son of Hostilius (who coincidentally married that same sole daughter of Hersilia).[17] The appearance in the fragments of Ninus is a prayer for an only child.[18]

Less clear, however, is the usage in Serapion, where Aquarius is given the epithet μονογενές.[19] Aquarius is typically associated with Ganymede, who is not normally regarded as an only child, having Ilus and Assaracus for brothers. Unlike, for instance, the rhetorical effect of Clytemnestra ironically referring to Agamemnon as one, there does not appear to be any reason in this particular text, unless there is a particular alternate mythological identification in play.

This last anomaly notwithstanding, the primary usage of the term contains to be in reference to a person, who is identified as lacking siblings. Three extensions of this usage to other domains make their initial appearances in this period, which I refer to as philosophical, natural-scientific, and grammatical.

Philosophical usage

The philosophical usage is found in a fragment of Parmenides discussing ‘the whole’ (τὸ πᾶν) as “alone unique and ingenerate.”[20] Similarly, Plato refers to the uniqueness of the cosmos this way:

οὔτε δύο οὔτ’ ἀπείρους ἐποίησεν ὁ ποιῶν κόσμους, ἀλλ’ εἷς ὅδε μονογενὴς οὐρανὸς γεγονὼς ἔστιν καὶ ἔτ’ ἔσται.[21]

for neither did the Maker create two, nor numberless, universes, but this unique, generated heaven, exists and will continue to exist.

The language of the universe, or heaven, as offspring of God certainly borrows or draws upon a generative, even biological, semantic sense. However, the meaning has apparently shifted, from a lack of ‘siblings’, to a lack of others in the same γένος. This seems in line with the idea that the universe is not generated in the same way, and so ‘sibling’ in this sense must also shift to ‘members of the same category’. Hence, ‘one of a kind’ or ‘unique in its class’ becomes an appropriate gloss for the term in the philosophical texts. This usage recurs in other philosophical texts.[22]

Natural scientific usage

Just as the philosophical use depicts the universe as the only one in its class of existence, so too the natural science usage. The earliest instance of this is Theophrastus’ Historia plantarum, wherein he describes the beech, yew, and alder each as having ‘one kind.’[23]


A third, related use emerges in grammatical texts. The earliest instance appears in Democritus, where it appears to denote a unique or single form.[24] It then appears in Philoxenus,[25] and also accounts for the later occurrences in Apollonius Dyscolus and Aelius Herodianus and Ps-Herodianus.[26] In all cases, it can be understood along the same lines, in that γένος represents a class and μονογενής represents a single or sole instance for a class. The jump from the philosophical and natural-science categories is not large, and the use of γένος in grammatical contexts perhaps made it an attractive choice.

Sub-conclusion: 8th to 1st century BC

Excluding the instances in the Septuagint (14), there are 33 occurrences across Greek literature down to the 1st century BC. Of these 22 indicate a siblingless child, 4 are philosophical, 3 refer to natural sciences, 3 are grammatical, and 1 remains unclear. The overwhelmingly common usage is to refer to a person as lacking siblings. The etymological idea that μονογενής derives its meaning from μονο + γένος and is only applied by extension to persons lacking siblings is not borne out by its usage across ancient Greek literature.



[1] Hecate is the sole offspring of the Titans, Perses and Asteria.

[2] M.L. West, Hesiod. Theogony, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966: 111-149. Retrieved from: http://stephanus.tlg.uci.edu/Iris/Cite?0020:001:22585

[3] M.L. West, Hesiod. Theogony, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966: 111-149.
Retrieved from: http://stephanus.tlg.uci.edu/Iris/Cite?0020:001:23847

[4] F. Solmsen, Hesiodi opera, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970: 49-85.
Retrieved from: http://stephanus.tlg.uci.edu/Iris/Cite?0020:002:20270

[5] E. Chambry, Aesopi fabulae, Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1:1925; 2:1926: 532-533, 536-538, 545-546, 556-557, 561, 564-565.
Retrieved from: http://stephanus.tlg.uci.edu/Iris/Cite?0096:015:61171

[6] The fable goes on to relate that the father builds a dwelling to enclose his child and keep him from any danger, but draws pictures of animals. The son, staring at the picture of the lion (and aware of the father’s dream), attempts to ‘blind’ the lion on the wall, but injures himself, resulting in a fever that leads to his death.

[7] D.L. Page, Aeschyli Septem Quae Supersunt Tragoedias, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972: 139-198.
Retrieved from: http://stephanus.tlg.uci.edu/Iris/Cite?0085:015:34188

[8] Menelaos being his brother. Some scholars have evidenced confusion at how μονογενής could mean siblingless since there are occasions when it is used in reference to persons who aren’t siblingless. I’m not sure how weak a sense of language you need to have to reach that point, but the Aeschylus’ example functions precisely because Agamemnon is not siblingless, but would be addressed as such.

[9] Herodotus, Historiae 2.79.3, 7.222.1.

[10] Plato, Critias 113d2 Κλειτὼ δὲ μονογενῆ θυγατέρα ἐγεννησάσθην.

[11] Plato, Leges 691d-e δίδυμον ὑμῖν φυτεύσας τὴν τῶν βασιλέων γένεσιν (e) ἐκ μονογενοῦς.

[12] Megasthenes, Fragmenta 23.58. καὶ τούτῳ ἄρσενας μὲν παῖδας πολλοὺς κάρτα γενέσθαι ἐν τῇ Ἰνδῶν γῇ, (πολλῇσι γὰρ δὴ γυναιξὶν ἐς γάμον ἐλθεῖν καὶ τοῦτον τὸν Ἡρακλέα,) θυγατέρα δὲ μουνο
γενέην· οὔνομα δὲ εἶναι τῇ παιδὶ Πανδαίην,

  1. Müller, Fragmenta historicorum Graecorum (FHG) 2, Paris: Didot, 1841-1870: 402-439.

[13] Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica 3.1035 μουνογενῆ δ’ Ἑκάτην Περσηίδα μειλίσσοιο.

[14] Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca 4.73.2

K.T. Fischer (post I. Bekker & L. Dindorf) and F. Vogel, Diodori bibliotheca historica, 5 vols., 3rd edn., Leipzig: Teubner, 1:1888; 2:1890; 3:1893; 4-5:1906 (repr. 1964): 1:1-533; 2:1-461; 3:1-497; 4:1-426; 5:1-336.
Retrieved from: http://stephanus.tlg.uci.edu/Iris/Cite?0060:001:786494

[15] Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca 6.7.2

K.T. Fischer (post I. Bekker & L. Dindorf) and F. Vogel, Diodori bibliotheca historica, 5 vols., 3rd edn., Leipzig: Teubner, 1:1888; 2:1890; 3:1893; 4-5:1906 (repr. 1964): 1:1-533; 2:1-461; 3:1-497; 4:1-426; 5:1-336.
Retrieved from: http://stephanus.tlg.uci.edu/Iris/Cite?0060:001:1005932


[16] Dionysius Halicarnassensis, Antiquitates Romanae 2.45.2.

[17] Dionysius Halicarnassensis, Antiquitates Romanae 3.1.2; 3.1.3.


[18] Ninus Fragmenta P. Berol. 6926. Framgent A, line 108.

  1. Zimmermann, Griechische Roman-Papyri und verwandte Texte, Heidelberg: Bilabel, 1936: 14-35.


[19] Serapion, Framenta 5.3, page 97, line 3.


Ἑλικοειδὲς Αἰγόκερως.

Μονογενὲς Ὑδροχόος.

Λεπιδωτὰ Αἰγόκερως, Ἰχθύες.

Δίμορφα Τοξότης, Αἰγόκερως, Ἰχθύες.

Χερσαῖον Σκορπίος καὶ ὁ Τοξότης ἀπὸ μέρους.


  1. Heeg, Codices Romani[Catalogus Codicum Astrologorum Graecorum5.3. Brussels: Lamertin, 1910]: 96-97, 125.
    Retrieved from: http://stephanus.tlg.uci.edu/Iris/Cite?1669:003:166

[20] Parmenides, Testimonia 22.4 ἀίδιον μὲν γὰρ τὸ πᾶν καὶ ἀκίνητον ἀποφαίνεται [καὶ] κατὰ τὴν τῶν πραγμάτων ἀλήθειαν· εἶναι γὰρ αὐτὸ ‘μοῦνον μουνογενές τε .. ἀγένητον’

[21] Plato, Timaeus 31b3.

[22] Plato, Timaeus 92c9, Spurious-Timaeus Fragmenta 207.1. This also seems to be the sense in Eudemus Fragmenta 150.41, but there it is overlayed as the philosophical interpretation of a myth, identifying Mōumis as “the noetic cosmos coming forth from the two archai.”

A similar usage which likewise straddles ‘only-child’ and the philosophical appears in Posidonius, Fragmenta, 398.15, where Persephone’s description as μονογενής (presumably as daughter of Zeus and Demeter, despite both parents having other children) is interpreted in terms of her liberating the mind from a deceased person, not the composite soul.

(Hermes) λύει δ’ αὕτη μὲν ταχὺ καὶ μετὰ βίας τὴν ψυχὴν ἀπὸ τοῦ σώματος, ἡ δὲ Φερσεφόνη πράως καὶ χρόνῳ πολλῷ τὸν νοῦν ἀπὸ τῆς ψυχῆς καὶ διὰ τοῦτο μονογενὴς κέκληται·

  1. Theiler, Posidonius. Die Fragmente, vol. 1 (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1982).

[23] Theophrastus, Historia plantarum 3.10.1, 3.10.2, 3.14.3.

[24] Democritus, Framenta 128.1.

[25] Philoxenus, Fragmenta 441.2, 441.8

[26] Apollonius Dyscolus, De Adverbiis 145.18, 20, 201.10. There are 244 references in Herodianus and Ps-Herodianus, accounting for over half of the 457 references which TLG ascribes to the 2nd century CE. That number drops to 56 in the 3rd century, before exploding to 4613 with the theological impulses of the 4th century.

Why are you “CI Folk” jerks?

This is one more in my ‘common objections’ to communicative approaches. And it was occasioned by @MetalClassicist, referencing this thread. I’ve not tried to directly address that thread, but somewhat more a general treatment of this topic.

Firstly, let me acknowledge that plenty of “CI-folks” can be jerks. I confess, I have at times been obnoxiously provocative about some of these topics, a vice I am working against.

Sometimes being a jerk has nothing to do with their language teaching camp, they’re just jerks. Other times, well, is there something about CI that makes its advocates annoying, sanctimonious, insufferable? I want to take some time to explore this topic and give some perspectives on it.

Let me also put in a little terminology disclaimer. “CI Folks” is not a helpful label. Hendrickson’s recent ‘the new pedagogy/ies’ is broad, but perhaps so broad as to be undescriptive. I’m going to talk in hugely oversimplifying terms today about CA – ‘communicative approaches’ (even as I recognise that that label itself is not the best), and G/T approaches (which I do think fall into a more discretely identifiable camp).

Secondly, then, I think we ought to recognise that many people who now are in the CA camp, and firmly in it, have suffered professionally and personally the disdain and conflict from G/T people. That’s not been my experience, generally, beyond random internet snipes, but I am also not a school-based teacher. It’s also relatively easy to forget, depending on your circles, or social media slice, that the vast bulk of (Latin) teachers are doing G/T, and a very decent chunk of modern language teachers are too. The CA slice of the language teacher pie is a minority, and often feels the need to justify itself, its very existence, and to prove that CA is better for both language acquisition and performing on old-model standardised testing. All of which to say, G/T folks can be plenty jerks too.

Thirdly, let’s recognise that from the CA side, there is a fundamental shift at the level of belief about how languages are learned, that makes them view G/T itself as problematic, in a way that G/T people don’t think about CA. CA people have come to the belief (by whatever means – reading research, doing some workshops, their own personal anecdata) that they way humans acquire language is primarily through comprehensible input, and that the contribution of explicit grammar instruction to this acquisition is somewhere between marginal and zero. I put it this way because primarily and marginal are important qualifiers here – there’s a large slice of second language acquisition research that doesn’t embrace the more extreme position of “only through CI” and “no benefit to grammar”. But, and a big but, that same very large slice reasonably thinks that CI is primary, and that grammar is marginal, to greater or lesser degrees.

If you come to accept that belief, and then you look at G/T, your only reasonable conclusion is that G/T is an incredibly ineffective method for helping learners acquire a language. This is a belief that G/T teachers do not generally share. G/T teachers are much more likely to have a set of beliefs that goes something like this: “languages can be taught in various ways. Different students and situations respond to different learning styles. People, especially teens and adults, benefit from explicit grammar instruction, because they cannot learn an L2 in the same way as an L1. Because Latin (or X) is an ancient/historical/complex language, it requires grammar + translation in order to produce accurate understanding of the language. Because there’s no need to order pizza and lattes in Ancient Greek, communicative approaches are amusing trifles, not serious learning. I don’t mind CA people, but let’s just recognise there are different methods to the same goal.”
I’ve bundled a whole bunch of things in there, not all of which apply to any particular individual. I think the last one is telling though – G/T people tend to think of CA as an alternative method to the same goal. Contrast – CA people think that G/T does not lead to acquisition and that it is not an alternative method to the same goal, but an alternative method that leads to a different goal.

Fourthly, CA people have often had a conversion-like experience. They almost all were G/T people, sometimes for decades of teaching. They know G/T, they know what it’s like, they know what it produces, and then something happened. Often, that is an experience of learning via a CA – perhaps a different language, perhaps the language they teach. And they experience acquiring a language through a CA in a whole new way. And then they discover the research, and it totally challenges, and overturns, their view of how languages are acquired. And then, often, they experience very, very negative pushback from G/T people. (It is a universal law of my twitter account that posting a thread that is negative about G/T and provocative about CA, will produce a reaction saying, ‘yes but G/T is necessary’). All of which pushes them to adopt a position that is very, “I was wrong, but now I have seen the light, and I feel like G/T defrauded me of something – it promised acquisition and it delivered grammar”.
That’s a very powerful set of belief forming factors there. I think you can see why CA people come to a position where they think relatively negatively about G/T, and take very unkindly to G/T people arguing with them about it, especially if they’ve experienced strong pushback in their own professional contexts.

Fifthly, I would offer the reflection that humans are social creatures, and prone to identifying ourselves on the basis of difference. So we form factions, and we fight it out. There are things about the CA-G/T division that simply reflect group dynamics and human politics. That is one ‘why’ for the heat, volatility, and tension that can dominate these discussions. Is it ideal? No. I really appreciate those on the CA bandwagon who make repeated and good-conscience attempts to build bridges, work with and affirm G/T people, and invite them into communicative approaches gently, respectfully, and with graciousness. We all need more of that in our lives.

The Siblingless Son: μονογενής in Greek literature (1)

(This is the first in a series of posts in which I will extensively review the word μονογενής in Greek literature up to the 1st century CE, in the context of debates about its meaning in the Gospel of John, as well as Patristic usage of the term in the 4th century. A finalised version of this paper will appear in a citable and stable format at the conclusion of our series)


Since the decision to translate μονογενής in John 3:16 with ‘only Son’ in the Revised Standard Version of 1952, and Dale Moody’s defence of that translation in 1953, it has been the received wisdom that μονογενής means ‘single of its kind, only’ and not ‘only-begotten.’[1] This paper argues that the shift to the meaning ‘unique’ is itself based on a linguistic fallacy, and in some cases a misreading of earlier scholarship, while also contending that ‘only-begotten’ is a similarly misguided translation choice. In contrast, a review of the evidence from Greek literature up to the 1st century CE strongly supports the claim that μονογενής indicates or denotes (when referring to persons) a child who lacks siblings.

Previous scholarship

Moody pointed to the tradition of scholarship in Thayer, Kattenbusch, Schmidt, Moulton and Milligan, and Buechsel. A consideration of that scholarship is less supportive than Moody suggests. Thayer rightly begins his entry with ‘used of only sons or daughters (viewed in relation to their parents)’[2] and even applies this to John 3:16, 18; 1:18, and then writes of 1:14, ‘used of Christ, denotes the only son of God or one who in the sense in which he himself is the son of God has no brethren.’[3] Thayer, as we will see, is quite correct when read at length, but not when his entry is reduced to its initial gloss, ‘single of its kind, only’. Kattenbusch is primarily of value in following Schmidt in recognising that the -γενής component derives from γίγνεσθαι but that the latter term has generally lost its ‘earlier sexual sense’.[4] But this does not solve the case in any event, since it is a combination of etymological and diachronic arguments that fails to settle the word’s meaning itself. Moulton and Milligan assert the primary meaning of ‘one of a kind, only, unique’ by rejecting ‘only-begotten’ on the basis that the latter would have to be μονογέννητος.[5] Their conclusion seems presumptuous in dictating that a Greek speaker ought to have used a hypothetical word they have derived on conjectural grounds.[6] Perhaps most useful of the older works is Friedrich Büchsel’s. He usefully compares μονογενής with other -γενής compounds, and notes that generally when a noun occurs as a prefix it indicates source, but when an adverb does it indicates ‘the nature of derivation’. It is worth quoting him at length:

The μονο- does not denote the source but the nature of derivation. Hence μονογενής means “of sole descent,” i.e., without brothers or sisters. This gives us the sense of only-begotten. The ref. is to the only child of one’s parents, primarily in relation to them. μονογενής is stronger than μόνος, for it denotes that they have never had more than this child. But the word can also be used more generally without ref. to derivation in the sense of “unique,” “unparalleled,” “incomparable,” though one should not confuse the refs. to class or species and to manner.[7]

Büchsel does give the meaning ‘only-begotten’, but only in the sense previously indicated – lacking siblings. Indeed he goes on to apply that same phrase, ‘only-begotten’ to the non-Johannine NT usages, suggesting that Büchsel treats ‘only-begotten’ as ‘siblingless’, which is arguably not the broader understanding of the former English phrase.

Roberts next took up the discussion in 1973, focused again on translation of John 3:16 and ‘only begotten’ or ‘only’.[8] His etymological discussion follows Moulton and Milligan in asserting that monogennetos would have to be the form to mean ‘only begotten’, and more generally insisting that because γένος lies behind the -γενής morpheme, it cannot be connected to γεννᾶν. This argument, and the corresponding argument that γίγνεσθαι has lost generational or sexual connotations by the 1st century, suggests that John coined the word ab initio and ἀφ᾿ ἑαυτοῦ in the first century, expecting readers to derive their understanding from the compound, when the word has a long, if not frequent, usage history.[9] Both Roberts, and Moody, refer to Warden’s (unfortunately) unpublished dissertation, as supporting ‘basically uniqueness of being, rather than any remarkableness of manner of coming into being, or yet uniqueness resulting from any manner coming into being.’[10] The problem with this argument is two-fold. Firstly, it continues to suggest that a contextless etymological argument supplies the meaning of -γενής from γένος and contemporaneous usage of γίγνεσθαι, rather than examining contextual and diachronic usages of μονογενής. Secondly, it suggests that μονογενής means ‘unique’ without any content to that uniqueness. To be unique, or one of a kind, refers to some kind of quality or class in which a thing is unique. Μονογενής, as I demonstrate below, refers primarily to the lack of members in the class of ‘sibling’. It is not an empty modifier signifying ‘unique’ to which any number of qualities or classes may be supplied, but a specified modifier in which the class is already transparent – siblings.

Roberts also attempts to make a case based on a ‘third category’ of usage, ‘a son or daughter who was one of two or more children,’ specifically Abraham/Isaac, and Josephus’ reference to Izates.[11] Both of these usages are examined adequately below.

Bulman (1981) sought ‘to defend the traditional translation of the term for the Johannine writings, as also for Hebrews 11:17.’[12] In doing so, he concedes that the meaning ‘only descendant’ is fine for the Lucan references, but that the others place a particular emphasis on ‘the factor of generation’[13] The difficulty remains that his initial argument seems a case of, at least, etymological pleading, that because of the -γένος stem, generation remains in view. I will argue that is true in a broad sense, against ‘unique’, but not in a narrow sense as pertains to some feature of that act of generation. Bulman also reviews the evidence from translation to Latin in the early church.[14] This, arguably, misrepresents some of the issue, since the language of unicus well-suits a siblingless descendant, whereas unigenitus does indeed shift the focus to generation, in a manner that moves away from the Greek term.[15]

Bulman attempts to rescue Heb 11:27 from Moody, who had suggested that it could not mean ‘only begotten’ precisely because Isaac was not Abraham’s only son. Bulman acknowledges as much but uses this to contend that it thus denotes the heir. The semantic argument here is muddled precisely because a sole descendant is concomitantly an heir, just as they are dearly beloved. This might represent some element of semantic bleeding, For Bulman, this becomes a theological contention that in John μονογενής refers to the pre-temporal appointment choice and ordination of the Son to the work of the economy. Such a proposal might, one supposes, be granted as the theological significance of the term,[16] but not the meaning of the word. That is, the Son as heir comports with his being μονογενής, but does it define it?

Dahms (1983) [17] short article suggests that even if birth per se is a notion absent from the γεν- stem, generation more broadly conceived may not be.[18] He recognises that the instances where μονογενής refers to non-persons are not persuasive evidence to the contrary.[19] He also reviews the arguments for cases where sole-generation cannot be in view, including Heb 11:17. Dahm’s view rejects the case that these are decisive, as being precisely cases where sole child, with a view to generation, can be upheld. Dahm’s also reviews the considerable evidence that μονογενής used of persons, even prior to Arian debates, ‘was understood to include the idea of generation.’[20] The thorny, indeed intractable, problem here is that, from the argument I make below, a sole, siblingless child, is by the fact of being a child, a generated child. That does not foreground the generation itself though.


Skarsaune’s work focuses on the use in the Nicene creed.[21] While recognising that Alexander and Athanasius use the term to denote ‘the only one who has been born, begotten – as distinct from adoptive sons,’[22] he nonetheless defers to the ‘well-known’ position that μονογενής admits of two meanings, one being ‘the only one of its kind. This seems to be the original meaning of the word – probably also the Johannine meaning.’[23] This with little more justification than Moody. On the other hand, Skarsaune’s advertisement that μονογενής in the Dated creed of 359 is deliberately interpreted as meaning begotten from a single source, is perceptive.[24] It does not, however, change the grounds of the debate.

The most recent debates about the term come from the work of Kevin Giles, and the Charles Lee Irons. Giles has argued for the commonly accepted view of ‘only’, and ‘unique’ as the meaning of μονογενής in a number of contexts, and specifically made the argument that the Greek church fathers understood it in this sense, and not with any theological jargon meaning of ‘only-begotten’. Giles holds that the meaning of μονογενής in the New Testament is ‘only’ or ‘unique’, and that the same is true in the church fathers.[25] Giles’ position on the fathers, I argue elsewhere, misreads the 4th century fathers, just as Irons does. Giles correctly recognises that μονογενής is not necessarily their basis for a doctrine of eternal generation, but his commitment to a uniqueness reading of the term, misses the way it signifies ‘siblingless’, and the way this comports with the doctrine of eternal generation that they in fact articulate.[26]

Irons has written the most comprehensive recent treatment of the term in light of debates over eternal generation, and focused on the Johannine usages.[27] Irons asks the elephant in the room question when he says, ‘if modern exegetes no longer find the patristic proof texts for the eternal generation of the Son, where does that leave the doctrine?’[28] This presumes three things: (i) that the meaning of μονογενής is a support for eternal generation, (ii) that the fourth century fathers held the same meaning of the term as 1st century authors, and (iii) that this meaning functions as a basis for the doctrine. I propose that (i) and (ii) are correct, though that meaning is not as transparent as Irons contends; elsewhere I content that (iii) is not strictly true.

In surveying whether μονογενής as ‘only-begotten’ only arose during the Arian disputes, Irons is correct in pointing out that the usage of the term both predates that controversy among eccelesiastical authors, and that the term was not itself sufficient to refute Arian theology, indeed they had no problem with it per se.[29] However, by this point in Irons’ argument, it is apparent that ‘only-begotten’ remains somewhat opaque. It is not a term in contemporary English usage, it appears to have no non-theological-jargon meaning. The primary motivation for keeping ‘begotten’ in ‘only-begotten’ is to insist on the generative relationship. But in what sense is it generative?

In setting aside the etymological argument against ‘only-begotten’, Irons helpfully reviews the considerable abundance of names with -γενής constituents that all indicate birth or origin. This comports with the treatment of Buchsel[30] who states that μονογενής parallels other [adverbial + γενής ] compounds to indicate the manner, not the source, of generation.[31]

What follows in Irons is a lexical argument that surveys four categories of meaning – a ‘root’ meaning with a biological reference, and then three meanings that are seen as non-literal extensions. As will become apparent, these four categories are correct, though I am less convinced that three of them should be treated as ‘non-literal extensions’ of the first.

We will return to Irons’ argument at the end of the paper. Having reviewed now all the most pertinent discussions of this term, we turn to the evidence itself. I will consider in a diachronic manner all occurrences of μονογενής in Greek literature up to and including the 1st century CE, demonstrating that the meaning ‘siblingless’ or ‘without siblings’ holds for all occurrences where it refers to a person. In passing, we will also consider the other three categories of usage as they emerge.

[1] Dale Moody, ‘God’s Only Song: The translation of John 3:16 in the Revised Standard Version’ JBL 1953, 213.
A long line of scholarship, and New Testament commentaries, refer to Moody as the definitive reference on this point, which is lamentable.

[2] Thayer, Joseph Henry. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Being Grimm’s Wilke’s Clavis Novi Testamenti. New York: Harper & Brothers., 1889, 417

[3] Thayer, 417.

[4] Ferdinand. Kattenbusch, ‘Only-Begotten’, in A Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels. Edited by J. Hastings, J.A. Selbie, J.C. Lambert. 1908, p281.
J.H. Heinrich Schmidt, Synonymik der griech. Sprache ii. p.503. ff.

[5] Moulton and Milligan, The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament illustrated from the papyri and other non-literary sources, 1930. 416.

[6] Excepting the one occurrence that TLG returns, from Constantinus Manasses, Monodia in Nicephorum Comnenum, l. 552, from the 12th century. E. Kurtz, “Εὐσταθίου Θεσσαλονίκης καὶ Κωνσταντίνου Μανασσῆ μονῳδίαι περὶ τοῦ θανάτου Νικηφόρου Κομνηνοῦ,” Vizantijskij Vremennik 17 (1910): 302-322.
Retrieved from: http://stephanus.tlg.uci.edu/Iris/Cite?3074:010:44376

[7] Friedrich Büchsel, “Μονογενής,” ed. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–), 738.

[8] R.L. Roberts, ‘The Rendering “Only Begotten” in John 3:16,’ Restoration Quaterly, 1.

[9] Roberts, ‘Only Begotten’, 3-4.

[10] Francis M. Warden, ‘Monogenēs in the Johannine Literature,’ unpublished dissertation, Ph.D Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Ky., 1938, 19. As cited in Roberts, ‘Only Begotten’, 5

[11] Roberts, ‘Only Begotten’, 8

[12] James M. Bulman, ‘The Only Begotten Son’Calvin Theological Journal, 16 (1981): 56.

[13] Bulman, ‘The Only Begotten Son’, 56.

[14] Bulman, ‘The Only Begotten Son’, 59-61.

[15] utinam uni(g)natus scriptus esset.

[16] Possible but doubtful.

[17] John V. Dahms, ‘The Johannine Use of Monogenēs Reconsidered’, New Test. Stud. vol. 29 (1983): 222-232.

[18] Dahms, ‘The Johannine Use of Monogenēs Reconsidered’, 222-3.

[19] Dahms, ‘The Johannine Use of Monogenēs Reconsidered’, 223.

[20] Dahms, 227.

[21] Oska Skarsaune, ‘A Neglected Detail in the Creed of Nicaea (325),’ Vigiliae Christianiae 41 (1987): 34-54.

[22] Skarsaune, ‘Creed of Nicaea’, 43.

[23] Skarsaune, ‘Creed of Nicaea’, 44.

[24] Skarsaune, ‘Creed of Nicaea’, 45-6. This has import for Basil’s refutation of Eunomius on the grounds that this subverts the word’s ordinary usage.

[25] See Kevin Giles, The Eternal Generation of the Son IVP Academic, 2012. Also Kevin Giles, ‘Kevin Giles, Grudem, Ware and Eternal Generation’, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2016/12/13/kevin-giles-grudem-ware-eternal-generation/ ; also the series of comments on posts by Charles Lee Irons http://upper-register.typepad.com/blog/eternal-generation-of-son/ (parts 1-5, dated 30/12/2016, 31/12/2016, 1/1/2017). Also, Giles ‘The Nicene and Reformed doctrine of the Trinity.’ ETS conference, 15th Nov 2016: https://www.reformation21.org/mos/1517/kevin-giles-on-ess#.Wdb4bVuCxhE


[26] A full treatment of this topic is beyond our scope here, but we nonetheless treat two significant fourth century passages below.

[27] Charles Lee Irons, “A lexical defence of the Johannine ‘Only Begotten’” in Retrieving Eternal Generation. Edited by Fred Sanders and Scott R. Swain (Zondervan, 2017), 98-116.

[28] Irons, 98-99.

[29] Irons, 102-3.

[30] Büchsel, 738.

[31] And indeed, this pertains to the Arian debates. Arians, broadly considered, are happy with the term μονογενής provided it means ‘born of one’. This reading of the term is rejected by their opponents.

What’s wrong with LLPSI, part 4 – Addressing the content challenges

In this final part of our series, Gregory Stringer and I offer our reflections and some of our strategies in responding to the challenges and difficulties presented in part two of our series. (See also parts 1, 2b, and 3). As we teach in two different contexts (online synchronous small-group instruction of adults for myself, a US High School for Gregory), we have framed this post with our answers separate but interacting.

Introductory remarks

Seumas: So, the very first thing I want to say here, and this is in part shaped by the push-back we received, is that our first intention in part two was to present a number of issues or topics which people in general have found problematic in LLPSI. Whether any particular individual also finds them problematic, is to some extent a second set of questions, but as educators I think we need to firstly acknowledge that these elements of the text require awareness.

The second introductory point I would make is that the nature of the intertwined relationship of language and culture is complicated, and Latin’s situation is extra-complicated. Because Latin had a long ‘post-Roman’ existence, in which it continued to be used by extensive numbers of speakers and writers for whom it was a learned language of educated discourse, it is not enough to say that learning Latin requires approach and engaging classical Roman culture. More needs to be said.

1. Replicating Roman Ideologies

Seumas: It seems important to me that we recognise that students, in reading ancient Roman texts, are going to engage with Roman ideologies. Indeed, we should by no means shy away from that. Similarly, a textbook that seeks to engage learners by an immersive, historically set narrative, must and ought to present Roman ideologies in a way that is historically grounded. So, it is by no means the case that this should be excised or whitewashed from the text.

That said, LLPSI isn’t an ancient Roman text, it’s a 20th century European textbook. And so, what I want from a textbook is not a blanket re-presentation of ancient Roman ideologies in a way that normalises them for its readers, especially for younger students still developing the facilities to critically read and engage with texts.

As a teacher then, I try to approach these challenges in a number of ways. 

Firstly, I teach students in-language ways of speaking about perspectives. For example, secundum sententiam Iulii, secundum sententiam Medi, etc.. Recognising, for example, that neither Iulius, nor the book’s narratorial voice, portrays Iulius as inhumanus, but that enslaved persons in his household may have a different view, is a valuable step in developing critical distance.

Secondly, I won’t hesitate in class to stop and offer English-language commentary on what the text is saying. Rather than sanitise the portrayal of, e.g., slavery, we generally ought to go the other direction and speak frankly, but appropriately, about the reality of slavery as an ancient world phenomenon.

Thirdly, it’s appropriate to give students external readings that reflect and engage with scholarship on the range of these topics. This is part of training students not merely in language, but in the scholarly world of classical studies. 

Fourthly, we ought to appreciate the way that the text itself contains the seeds of its own destruction. This grows as you read on. In XII Iulius’ children question why the Romans are fighting the Germani, and Marcus points out that the Germani are defending their patria. To which Iulius’ reply sed patria nostra pulchrior est quam illōrum! Atque Germānī hominēs barbarī sunt echoes unconvincingly. This is further extended in XXXIII where Aemilius’ adopts a Tibullan perspective on war and militarism . Similarly, Aemilia’s growing witty repartée with Iulius provide a challenge to his perspective, as does the Medus’ narrative on his own enslavement in chapter XXXII.

GregoryMuch of what I wanted to say on this topic I have already said in my response to Dr. Owens (Part 2B), but I would like to echo what Seumas has said about teaching students about perspectives. There has been a long tradition of teaching students, explicitly or implicitly, that the Romans were somehow an inherently superior culture. How some of that language and ideology has made it into both instructional materials such as textbooks as well as promotional materials for “why study Latin” has rightly been the topic of much discussion in recent years. We can all agree on the magnitude of the influence of the Romans, but the moral implications of that influence is clearly a subjective matter and something I endeavor to leave up to the students to decide for themselves as much as possible. As I said in Part 2B, I feel it is my job to give students as complete a picture of the society under study as I can, give them the skills to analyze texts, and then allow them to make up their own minds about what they feel about the Romans and their ideas, rather than be some sort of “cheerleader” for the Romans or Roman cultural attitudes. 

Therefore, I agree wholeheartedly with and equally practice the four steps laid out by Seumas above – namely, teaching students about perspectives, relaying to them the dark sides of Roman culture as much as whatever achievements they are customarily credited with, giving students quality external readings from secondary sources, from day 1, but especially as the get further along in their study, and finally, highlighting the ways in which LLPSI itself already calls Roman ideologies into question, particularly in many of the supplementary readings.

2. Centering of Roman elites

Seumas: While much of what students may go on to read in ‘classics’ is the product of, and centered on, Roman elites, again we ought to question what perspective it presents in a language textbook to begin by centring and norming Roman elites as LLPSI does. While we might wish that LLPSI did more in this respect, we as educators can do more. Firstly, we can discuss the lives of the non-central characters – what would it be like to live as an enslaved person in Iulius’ household. What of Albinus, Lydia, Lepidus, Dorippa, etc.. In this, the Colloquia Personarum is a particularly helpful supplement.

Secondly, we can go beyond the textbook, to the range of sources (literary and non-) that attest to the lives of non-elites. Indeed, I would argue, we cannot understand Roman elites appropriately if we do not understand the world around them, the world in which they were elites.

We may also appreciate the fact, again, that the book itself complicates the centering of Iulius. As Gregory pointed out in part 2, Iulius appears as a less and less likeable ‘bonus dominus’ as the book goes on, whereas Medus’ tale of escape from enslavement takes on a positive role. Again, there is space in teaching to question all the characters of our text, discuss their choices, their life situations, and the mores that motivate their actions, to better understand ancient Romans, and ourselves, in the medium of Latin.

Gregory: This has been an enormous area of growth for me in the ten years that I have been teaching Latin, as I likewise was made to believe by my preparation that the “canon” was pretty much all we had from antiquity, which is not at all true, and that any attempt to bring other voices into the conversation was essentially a waste of time, which is even more false. Again, as Seumas says, bringing in the supplementary texts is one important way to address this, as Orberg did already attempt to broaden the perspective of the main text in them. While they of course often carry the same world view of the same author who wrote the main text, there is a concerted effort, as much for storyline as anything else, to bring in the voices of the other characters in the book. So, for example, in the Colloquium Personarum for Chapter V the enslaved Davus is faced with a moral dilemma when he runs into the escaped Medus in the temple in Tusculum. Should he inform Iulius or let Medus escape? Though the Latin is very basic, the underlying question of what is “property” and who or what can belong to whom in the ensuing conversation between Medus and Davus is anything but and exploring this with students is a great way to do what Seumas described in #1 – ask students, e.g. “secundum Davum, estne Medus servus Iulii?” (“according to Davus, is Medus the slave of Iulius?”)

Another thing I have done with my curriculum, where I have lots of contact hours with my students, is to insert modern Latin novellas, ancient inscriptions, and other, lesser known ancient Roman texts between certain chapters of LLPSI to highlight the themes and culture aspects under study. Again, a major weakness of many Classics programs is the false projection of “Roman attitudes” as if a unitary, unchanging, completely knowable thing when, of course, “Romans” (even if we were to confine ourselves only to elite Roman men, which we definitely should not) existed in a huge variety of geographical locations across a span of over a thousand years. Bringing in these other perspectives via other texts helps highlight this important difference between “Roman attitudes” (as in the expressed opinions of a relatively few elite men between the 1st century BCE and the 1st century CE) and the complex reality of the the beliefs and opinions, expressed or implied, of thousands of men and women from all ranges of social standings from all across the Roman Empire, as revealed in something like the strange epitaph of Alia Potestas. Again, the goal is to give students as complete a picture as possible, so we are not throwing out the perspectives of Roman elites, but rather no longer allowing them to speak for all ancient Romans by instead letting some other less famous Romans speak for themselves.

3. Violence

Seumas: Personally, I have not had a student who has voiced discomfort with the familial violence in LLPSI. I think we do well to recognise and acknowledge that (a) the kind of familial violence between siblings, and the corporal punishment of children, is relatively contextual to both ancient Rome, and to mid-20th century Europe; (b) the reality of child-directed violence in ancient Rome was likely very often worse; (c) here, and in other textbooks, this kind of violence occurs in the context of a comedic tradition.

All that said, I as an educator need to recognise that I might have students, especially those who have suffered domestic violence and abuse, who will find this material difficult, triggering, or similar. Especially if I, or fellow learners, make light of it. For my part, I mostly teach adults, and this shapes my own treatment of this material. Again, it’s not a matter of wanting to sanitise the past, but to consider how and how best to approach such themes.

I think it’s also worth stopping and pointing out that Ørberg’s pedagogical choices somewhat force this. The genitive case is introduced in the context of enslaver and enslaved persons. The accusative as direct complement of a transitive verb is introduced with one sibling hitting another. The subjunctive of indirect command is introduced by Iulius severely ordering around his coloni. These power relations are endemic to the introduction of grammar points, when they needn’t have been.

Gregory: Likewise, I have never had a student specifically say that the violence in LLPSI bothered them, only other teachers. However, that is not by any means a fair sample since the very dynamic of me as the adult teacher of children from whom they receive a grade makes it somewhat less likely that they would voice this kind of complaint, unless I specifically asked them about it – something I may do anonymously in the future to get a better understanding of how they feel about the content of the book overall. As Seumas says, it’s not about sanitising the material – indeed, I feel it would be a grave mistake in the other direction to pretend that violence was not a part of daily life in Ancient Rome. Rather, how can we as teachers ensure that we are not sending subtle messages to our students that we condone or endorse that violence? I don’t have all the answers, nor do I pretend to, but I do think it is an important question to keep in mind at all times.

As to how to address it, especially given the pedagogical choices Orberg made, I have some ideas. For example, instead of introducing the genitive largely via relationships of enslavement, I would significantly decrease that part of chapter II (though probably not eliminate entirely since it is representative of how Roman enslavers conceptualized the relationship) and instead replace it with an earlier introduction of Diodorus, the local school teacher who appears in chapter 15, as the magister discipulorum (“teacher of the students”) and the children as discipuli Diodori (“students of Diodorus”). I already do this in my own classroom with my own students. Likewise, I teach the accusative early on via classroom commands like “aperi librum!” (“open the book!”) and “claude ianuam!” (“close the door!”) and indirect commands in a similar fashion e.g. “magister Dianae imperat ut ianuam claudat” (“the teacher orders Diana to close the door”). We still read the examples as they appear in the book, but since students have already heard these constructions in other meaningful contexts, we don’t need to linger on these passages or unnecessarily use them in practice exercises for the sake of repetition.

4. The sexist portrayal of women. 

Gregory: I already covered this pretty thoroughly in my response to Dr. Owens (Part 2B), so I suggest you go back and read what I wrote there. But I will reiterate that the sexist portrayal is largely a result of the authorial choice to center one imaginary elite family and their habits and customs, when, in fact, we know that the realities of both elite and non-elite women often varied wildly. With the help of resources like the books Women Writers of Ancient Greece and Rome by I. M. Plant, The Worlds of Roman Women by Raia, Luschnig, and Sebesta, Skye Shirley’s “Women Writing Latin” class, Project Nota’s work in increasing the accessibility of women authored texts from various ages and contexts of Latin, I’ve been able to systematically revamp my curriculum to ensure that women’s voices are not excluded from the curriculum at any level. I already gave the example of what I did to give a more accurate picture of the education of women and girls as I teach chapter XV, and here is a full unit that I do centered on Ellie Arnold’s excellent novella Cloelia and using the Fabulae Syrae that accompany chapter XXVI of LLPSI.

Seumas: I don’t know that I would say much more. For my part, one can and ought to (a) acknowledge the historical constraints on women’s lives that did mean that for many, for the most part, their spheres of life were confined to family, children, etc., (b) recognising that does not obviate the need to recognise and acknowledge that this wasn’t true for all women and in all ways, as well as the fact that clearly ancient women were human beings of full dignity, with their own thoughts, who communicated and acted as agents, not merely as dependents. The fact that so many of our sources fail to see it that way is no reason for a textbook to normalize that view. (c) Doing so doesn’t necessarily diminish or denigrate in any way the value we may place upon domestic affairs, marriage, child-rearing. (d) One really can do all that, and then still go on and make use of the sources we do have, as you point out, to examine and portray the realities of other women, beyond the narrow constraints that LLPSI mostly presents.

5. Everyone depicted as “white”

Seumas: I would begin my comments here by recognising that ‘white’ is a socially-constructed category of relatively recent history, but it’s also inescapable now because it has been constructed, primarily in the USA, but by various processes to other colonial spaces. This, and the way that the reception of classical antiquity has functioned and continues to function in many places, to situate classical Rome and Greece as ‘precursors’ to a constructed historical trajectory of Western Europe as White, necessitates that we think critically and constructively. We can and should do all this, while simultaneously acknowledging that ‘white’ was not a functional category for the ancient Romans, that racism and prejudice existed in ancient Rome, but did not operate, necessarily, along the same lines or in the same ways that it does today, and that simplistic accounts serve no one well.

All this said, the text of LLPSI contains more hints of ethnic diversity than may be at first apparent. It is clear that numerous of the slaves are Greek, as we might expect. Davus, per the Fabellae Latinae, is a Briton. Syra and Syrus are almost certainly Syrian, and so on. We might also wish that our text explored this a little more.

However, when the accompanying illustrations appear, particularly in the colourized editions, to perpetuate a notion of Rome as white, we ought also here stop and raise questions. 

Practically, the best way to address this seems to me to provide outside materials, either scholarship or publicly facing (yet still scholarly) materials that both provide a more complete picture, as well as introduce and educate students into the ways in which classical reception has, and continues to be, complicit in white supremacy.

Gregory: Seumas has already said it all pretty well. I will only add that just because something is a social construct, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have real consequences. Representation matters and if we allow the utterly false narrative that the Romans were somehow the “white” ancestors of “Western Civilization” to persist, we will be doing a great disservice to all our students of all backgrounds. Since I took over at my school 10 years ago I have watched my program triple in size (from 85 to 251 students) and go from 22% students of color (compared to 28% school-wide) to 48.5% students of color (compared to 35% school-wide). Though I can’t prove it and I know correlation does not equal causation, I can’t help but think that mine and my colleague John Walsh’s willingness to approach this and other the issues head-on has been part of that growth and transformation of our program.

6. Christian overtones

Gregory: The Christian sub-story is in fact one of the few places in the main narrative where we do unambiguously hear a woman sharing her ideas outside of stereotypical so-called “women’s issues,” as Lydia tries to teach Medus about Christianity and it is one of the most interesting parts of the whole narrative. And, based on what we know of the early spread of Christianity, it seems quite reasonable that a 2nd century freedwoman in Rome may become invested in it, though there is much else about her character that is left unexplained. I personally don’t think the limited Christian content is a reason one shouldn’t be able to teach this text, but, as I pointed out in Part 2 and 2B, this is highly dependent on the context you teach in and I trust the judgement of my colleagues. So I don’t know that I would change anything about this and I think academic discussion of early Christianity should be a part of any Latin curriculum. I would however, add some more traditional Roman religion into the narrative as well. Why not show us Iulius and Aemilia worshipping the Lares in the atrium of their home? Or perhaps a public sacrifice in the Forum of Tusculum? Maybe Lydia and Medus could encounter the large Jewish community in Rome at that time? Again, there are obviously constraints to any book and some things will necessarily be left out, but these posts were about ideals, so I think we are allowed to wish for more. In the meantime, as for how to approach this issue with students, like with all the other issues cited above, it’s often just a question of giving additional context and supplementing with more external texts, things like Pliny’s letters can add context about early Christianity from the Roman point of view, and Gellius, Cicero, and novellas like Vanderpool’s Augury is for the Birds and Sacri Pulli can pull provide compelling material about aspects of polytheistic Roman religion at a variety of levels.

Seumas: Personally, and aware that I write this as a Christian, I don’t find the Christian elements in LLPSI particularly objectionable. I am aware that some people do, and this plays into broader questions of role and representation of religion in secular teaching spaces. Some people do find, and have expressed, that especially in chapter XXVIII it appears that the text supports Christianity through Lydia’s explicit proselytism, and the course of events in ch XVI, where Medus’ mouth, about to pray to Neptune, is swamped by a wave, while the storm abates apparently in response to Lydia’s prayer.

In my view, the text presents an opportunity for two kinds of discussion with students, and engagement rather than retreat from religious topics, especially in a pluralist civic space, is the better way forward. Firstly, both Lydia, and the representatives of Greek and Roman religion here (Medus, and the gubernator), experience the same set of natural phenomena – a storm, and their deliverance from it. How they interpret it is quite different though – Lydia attributes their rescue to the Christian God’s interference, the gubernator responds with a defence of traditional Roman religion. Secondly, we ought to engage more vigorously with religion in its ancient forms, because religion was so vital to their experience of human existence. In this regard, as we mentioned in part two, LLPSI sadly does us some disservice – there is very little of lived Roman religion in the book, no mention of the lares, no mention of Iulius and his household, or anyone else really, engaging in religious practice. We might also take note that there is no Jewish presence in FR, another historical omission that ought not be overlooked.

Lydia’s character, too, raises opportunities for discussion. While I find her the least plausible character in the book (a seemingly unattached Greek (freed?)woman living in Rome without any apparent work or relationships, who elopes with her pagan fugitive boyfriend to Greece at the drop of a hat?), it ought to nonetheless lead us to discussions of the place and nature of ancient Christianity in the late empire. The often chronological snobbery of focusing on the narrow slice of the Late Republic and Early Principate, leaves many students simply importing their present experiences and notions of Christianity onto the early centuries CE, and thus ill-equipped to historically engage with one of the most formative influences on european and mediterranean history since. The antidote here is not less religion, as if we could sanitize the ancient world of religion to fit modern notions of secularity, but more, to present the panoply of ancient religious life.

What’s wrong with LLPSI, part 3 – Addressing the language challenges

In this post Gregory Stringer and I offer our reflections and some of our strategies in responding to the challenges and difficulties presented in part one of this series. As we teach in two different contexts (online synchronous small-group instruction of adults for myself, a US High School for Gregory), we have framed this post with our answers separate but interacting. In our final fourth part, we will discuss in more depth issues related to post two, content.

1. Assuming that once you understand it once, you know it forever.

Seumas: One of the maxims I apply, which I’m pretty sure I got from J.S. Bailey, and now repeat freely to students is, “if you don’t know it, you just need to see at least one more time”. It’s okay not to have learnt things, or to have forgotten things, or not to know them ‘on the spot’. Helping students let go of that, and recognise that knowing might be a binary thing (know/not-know) in that moment, but it’s not a binary thing overall. ‘Knowing’ Latin, or even any discrete element of Latin, is a complex phenomenon, and as long as students keep going, they will learn these things.

Gregory: Perhaps the most important maxim I apply is one of the first things I learned from my mentor Jacqui Carlon in my Latin Pedagogy program at UMASS Boston:  “Just because you taught it, doesn’t mean they learned it.” In fact, I think this is perhaps the biggest problem with the grammar-translation method, though LLPSI or CI-based instruction is not immune from it either, the (mis-)conception that as soon as the book or teacher has introduced a word or a structure and given the students a few exercises to work toward mastery, that everyone should know it thereafter, when of course, language acquisition is neither linear nor, as Seumas says, binary in that way. LLPSI generally does a much better job of recycling vocab and structures than something like Wheelock’s or Shelmerdine, but of course what ultimately “clicks” and “sticks” for students is highly individualized. As for how to deal with that, as Seumas implies, moving away from what I call “gotchya” pedagogy, where we put students on the spot to name grammatical structure (a case, a tense, etc.), especially those we’ve just recently taught and/or haven’t looked at in a long time, is one important way to help students let go of a lot of insecurity. For most students, that sort of thing only serves to make them anxious (raise the ‘affective filter’) and make it even more difficult for them to acquire the structures we are trying to teach.

2. Grammar driven curriculum

Seumas: So, for my part, I just lean into it. If you’ve got a book and you’re committed to working with it, just go with and work around that one issue. Almost any textbook is going to be sequenced in one way or another. In the case of this book, yes it’s not ideal, but you can walk to mitigate some of those issues directly and indirectly. The only alternative, really, is to adopt a non-grammar curriculum, but then you need to have a different organising principle. Which, I think, is also a totally fine approach. E.g., you can choose to untextbook, build your sequencing around vocabulary alone, and unshelter grammar entirely, but then you’re going to have to either not use LLPSI, or use LLPSI in a quite different way – as a supplementary book students can read (probably at a relatively late stage, given the vocab restraints)

Gregory: I likewise lean into it, but, as I said above, I’ve largely moved away from the “gotchya” pedagogy, where we look for particularly unusual or “tricky” grammar, case usage etc. and then either cold call (the worst) or ask for volunteers (slightly better) to essentially guess what’s going on. Instead, for all grammatical structures, I practice something called “spiral teaching” where I do formally introduce a concept when LLPSI does (at the end of each chapter, after many meaningful encounters), but then I don’t hold students immediately responsible for “knowing” it. Rather, I intentionally return to these concepts periodically and in the meantime I reassure students who don’t yet “get it” that “the bus is coming back around” – as in, students will see the ablative absolute or the jussive subjunctive or whatever many more times during their Latin career, so it’s completely ok if some of them still don’t “get it” even after the initial introduction and having seen it several times. I think much of it has to do with us as teachers just relaxing and letting go, along the lines of Lightbrown and Spada’s concept of “get it right in the end.” It’s completely ok if beginning and intermediate and even advanced students can’t parse every word, as long as they are continuing to read and acquire new vocabulary, with the understanding that if they stick with it, every student can get there eventually and we should build our curricula and our assessments accordingly. In my experience, there are many students who struggle with abstracting about grammar in the beginner and intermediate levels (especially the younger the students are), but as time goes on it begins to “click” with them. But when we structure a curriculum wherein they must “prove” their mastery of grammar in order to move to the next level, we effectively force out a lot of students along the way who might otherwise have stuck with it. So in the end, it’s ok to teach a grammar syllabus as an organizing principle, as long as we don’t expect that students will “know” the grammar just because we’ve taught it, as Carlon says.

(By the way, if you are teaching in a department where “gotchya” grammar pedagogy is nevertheless part of what is expected of students and so you don’t want them to be totally unprepared for it, instead of doing the same to them yourself, much better would be to use that time and effort to reinforce the basics and only cold call or take volunteers for what is usual and then you as the teacher continue to point out what is unusual until such time that a construction has been seen enough to be reasonably confident that at least several students will be able to identify it, then, and only then take volunteers.)

3. Vocab and volume

Seumas: There’s no easy solution to the question of vocabulary and volume. In an ideal world, students read texts in which unknown items (a) are only a small percentage of all items (e.g. the 95-98% should be comprehensible, 5-2% new), and (b) vocabulary items get repeated frequently enough, both immediately and in an ongoing way, to develop enough exposures. If you keep those two constraints – low density of new items plus significant repetition of new items, then you must keep increasing the volume of text students interact with.

For my part, I wouldn’t change the amount of vocab in Familia Romana, or really want to lengthen the text itself. The solution then is to find other ways to increase the volume of text/speech students encounter. On the reading side, it means reading the supplements, reading novellas, getting students to read anything they can. On the spoken side, it means making sure class time happens in Latin with lots of exposure to words in communicative contexts.

Gregory: I agree with Seumas that there is no easy answer. And even though LLPSI does a much better job of recycling its 1800 vocabulary words than any other book (for comparison, Wheelock introduces about 800 words, more than half of which only appear once!), it’s still ultimately too many new words per line of Latin. But I think the volume of vocab is definitely more of a problem for students trying to use LLPSI on their own or in classes where a lot of time in class is spent on explicit grammar instruction. For my students, we build in quite a lot of repetition, as Seumas says, via reading all the supplements, reading novellas, and doing speaking and writing exercises that use the words in even more compelling contexts. I also do a lot of what I call “sewing vocabulary seeds” via pre-reading vocabulary building games like Quizlet Live, Gimkit, and Blooket. Those things on their own won’t do a ton to build long term vocabulary acquisition, but when used as “previewing” for the vocab students are about to encounter in meaningful use, they seem to lead to greater uptake of new words as we read. Crucially, I do all of that vocabulary work via Latin to Latin synonyms, antonyms, and short definitions (rather than via English) which has the dual effect of recycling even more of the earlier vocab, while also helping students move away from conceptualizing Latin as merely English in code. Finally, LLPSI was meant to be read and re-read, not just decoded once and then tossed aside. One way to get students to engage with the text multiple times without losing too much time is by having them listen to recordings of the text. Of course, the more times students encounter a text, the more comprehensible it will be, however, there are also diminishing returns over time because upon each encounter, the input becomes less compelling. A technique that I have found to be very effective is having the students listen to a high quality, well intoned recording of the reading once or twice without the text in front of them before looking at it. Then, have the students listen a third time with the text in front of them. If you’ve been doing a good amount of pre-reading with them, this is often enough for students to understand the whole reading without stopping and parsing or looking up a single word.

  1. Some grammatical features come too late

Seumas: While getting away from a grammar sequence altogether is not feasible while using LLPSI as a main teaching tool, it can be tweaked. To pick up some specific examples: I bring forward some things, e.g. I introduce the 1st and 2nd person forms early, by doing personalised questions early on (habesne tu villam? egone? villam non habeo!). Other things I try to at least subtly introduce without fanfare. e.g., I’ll use a few tenses here and there in spoken form, and flag them with hand gestures, temporal adverbs, etc.. Likewise with hortatory and jussive subjunctives.

Gregory: I believe a lot of this concern is alleviated if we move away from ideas of linear acquisition and “easy” and “hard” grammar – each book has its own grammar sequencing based on a variety of factors, including statistical frequency, deviation from structures in the students’ presumed L1, etc. but this easy/hard concept is generally lurking somewhere and that is no less true for LLPSI. To his credit, Ørberg did seemingly try to intuit an “order of acquisition” based on other languages, but e.g., he holds off on complex conditionals until the end of the book seemingly because of an assumption that they are “hard.” But there really isn’t much strong evidence for some grammar being intrinsically “more difficult” for students to acquire or, even if it were true, that withholding “difficult” structures is the best strategy. In fact, the opposite may be true, since, like vocabulary, students simply need more meaningful exposure to these structures in order to acquire them. So like Seumas, much of this I approach by bringing things forward and using them with the students in spoken and written contexts long before LLPSI introduces them, and doing so in compelling, meaningful contexts. So, for example, a “speed-friending” activity where students answer scaffolded questions like “if you could be any superhero, which superhero would you be?” can be a great way to introduce students to contrary to fact conditionals long before Capitulum XXXIII but without needing to explain all the underlying grammar. (e.g. give the students the format “si tu quilibet superheros esse posses, quis esses? Ego essem…” with some common choices added Femina Mirabilis, Vir Ferreus, Femina Felina, Vir Araneus, etc.). Likewise, narrating the previous day’s story in the perfect and imperfect (Quintus arborem ascendebat et tum subito ramus fractus est et Quintus de arbore cecidit!) is a great way to get students used to hearing these two tenses long before chapters XVIII-XIX.

What’s wrong with LLPSI, part 2b – Responding to Patrick Owens

[Seumas: There’s always a danger of saying too much, of trying to add words upon words upon words. However, I think a preface to the following post is deserving. In part one I laid out some of the language oriented problems in LLPSI, in part two Gregory Stringer has laid out some of the difficulties in terms of content, including many things that some people perceive as problematic. Patrick Owens wrote a length comment reply, which you can read in the comments on part two. Recognising that the kind of response that Owens brings, reflects a broader set of concerns among classical studies, I’ve given space here for Gregory to write an extended response. I’ll defer further commentary to parts three and four, in which Gregory and I will both speak to how we as educators negotiate both language and content challenges in LLPSI. The rest of this post, responding to Owens, is another guest-post from Gregory Stringer]

Owens: I believe these criticisms are unfounded or exaggerated.

In response to our Part II post on “What’s Wrong with LLPSI” we received a long response from Dr. Patrick Owens. Dr. Owens believes the “criticisms are unfounded or exaggerated.” First, I’m grateful for the time and effort Dr. Owens spent on this response. We welcome dialogue on this topic! And also, it is a shame that Dr. Owens didn’t wait for our announced follow ups, where we will address how we each approach these particular issues, linguistic and cultural, in our individual settings, as I think he will find that some of his objections were precipitous and based on an incomplete understanding of our thoughts on the book as a whole. Nevertheless, I will take the time to treat his objections one by one

Owens: LLPSI replicates Roman ideologies because it is a Latin textbook that teaches the predominant viewpoints of the authors that are read in Classical Latin. This is not ‘problematic material’ unless one think one must believe everything one reads.

So we both agree that the text does indeed teach a version of Roman viewpoints (or at least a modern reconstruction of some of the attitudes as expressed by a restricted group of men in a restricted group of texts) in service of the purpose of preparing students to read the “canon”. But the larger point for me is, I simply believe that responsible teachers should know that occasional uncritical reproduction of Roman ideologies in the voice of an “objective” narrator is a feature of this textbook, and sometimes in ways that should make us uncomfortable, especially, as in the example I gave, around enslavement. Explicit or implicit statements that slavery is not inhumane are in my opinion, ipso facto, problematic. And, especially since this textbook is often used, as in my district at my direction, with students as young as 11 years old who, unlike an adult, are often still developing the intellectual capacity to “not believe everything one reads,” it only seems prudent to acknowledge and be aware of this fact when teaching from it.

Owens: LLPSI centers on Roman elites because (a) we don’t have as much evidence for the attitudes of the lower classes; 

We have TONS of evidence for the lives, practices, beliefs, and attitudes of the lower classes, material and textual, it just has been traditionally excluded from the “canon” or largely ignored. Archeological evidence from around the Roman empire, including material objects and graffiti, is rich with details that can shed light on the beliefs and attitudes of the lower classes, as can texts often ignored or overlooked such as the Vindolanda tablets, papyri from Egypt, and even careful reading of canonical texts – things such as the plays of Plautus, the fables of Phaedrus, the works of Apuleius and Petronius, the satires of Juvenal and the epigrams of Martial, the letters of Cicero and Pliny, and the Christian Bible and early Patristic texts can all be fruitfully mined to get a better sense of the lives and attitudes of non-elites. Having less evidence is not the same as having none, and to  be honest, I’m not even so sure we have less, it’s just not as neatly packaged or easily accessible. 

 Owens: (b) the standard classical tongue that is being taught is not what the plebs would have spoken to one another;

Next, “standard classical tongue” should probably say “standardized” since we know that the version of Latin vocabulary and grammar presented in any textbook is as much an artificial ideal following centuries of curation and standardization, rather than accurately replicating what has been passed down to us via manuscript tradition. The classical texts upon which the Latin in LLPSI is based have been the subject of centuries of recopying, editing, and emendation, and also the classical authors themselves, even Cicero, often break the “rules” as laid down in grammar books and use Latin in ways that would seem “un-classical” based on what is taught in textbooks. Furthermore, Dr. Owens’ argument that what “is being taught is not what the plebs would have spoken to one another” and therefore the textbook naturally centers an elite family quickly falls apart since, first, there was no clear-cut division between a formal Latin of written texts and the spoken Latin of the common people, rather merely different registers of Classical Latin used and seen in different contexts, and second, there are plenty of characters in the book who are not elite, such as Medus, Lydia, and Davus inter alios, who also have speaking roles and yet use the same “standard Classical” Latin as Iulius, Cornelius, and Aemilia. So if Hans was attempting to accurately reflect the Latin of the canon and also be historically accurate, and therefore was in some way compelled to center the story on an elite family in order to teach their dialect (as Owens claims), why did he include non-elite characters and have them speak in a “historically inappropriate” (to them) Classical Latin? Or was he simply creating an engaging teaching tool aimed at helping people read the canonical texts and so he, as anyone would, put together something he felt would be effective based on his own knowledge and experience with Latin and Roman culture? Surely the latter. Again, I’m not out to “attack” Hans Ørberg or his incredible achievement – indeed here is a video of a talk I gave at CANE this year which promotes LLPSI to teachers as the single best tool for any Latin curriculum (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EQEi5EJfoog). But I also don’t labor under a false idea that the book is flawless. It can have flaws and still be an excellent tool for a Latin curriculum. I don’t even say Hans was necessarily “wrong” to center the book on an elite Roman family and I believe he did an overall excellent job of producing a nuanced depiction of them and the non-elite characters presented in the book. And also, centering Iulius and his family was an authorial choice, just as much as what order to teach the cases in or when to introduce the subjunctive, and there are implications of that choice. And so I feel it is important to make other teachers who want to use this book aware of these various features they will encounter so they make informed decisions for their curriculum.

Owens: (c) it is a great deal more pleasant to read about the inner workings of a family than a volume centered around the nearly ubiquitous suffering among the poor and disenfranchised. Second language learners don’t do well with depressing input. Furthermore, when great literature references the Romans (e.g., Dante, Shakespeare, Rimbaud, Voltaire, FitzGerald et cet.) it is the life of the elite and the literary products of the elite that are requisite knowledge. Interested students may go on to learn about the rest of Roman life, but this is an excellent entry point.

This last point strikes me as rather strange. According to Dr. Owens: 1. Reading about an elite family (who, among other things, enslave and oppress others) is inherently “a great deal more pleasant” than reading about non-elites. 2. A book centered on non-elites, the poor, and the disenfranchised would necessarily be entirely about suffering or that it would necessarily be “depressing.” Yes, the lives of the non-elites were undoubtedly full of toil and pain, but they were also undoubtedly full of all the other emotions humans are capable of as well. Indeed, what, for example, is the Christian Bible if not a story of simultaneous pain and suffering and joy and uplift of non-elites? 3. In the end, Dr. Owens reveals it is because his goal is for his students to go on to read famous works of great literature. That is a fine goal, and one I share to a degree. But it is merely one goal among many. My students sign up to study Latin for all sorts of reasons and I see it as my job to do my best to prepare them to do what THEY want to do with Latin, not to decide for them what they must read in the future or do with the skills acquired in my class. And, being a graduate of public schools myself who now teaches to public school students, I aim to give them a more inclusive view of the world of ancient Rome rather than just a vision from the top down. In fact, I find my students are just as interested if not more to find out what their lives may have been like in ancient Rome, as opposed to just learning about the lives of the elite. If they are interested in learning more about the lives of the elite or reading great literature, interested students may go on to study these topics and will find no shortage of places to do so. But a more holistic, realistic view of the vast and diverse realities of an ancient society and acquiring the Latin reading skills to read what they want to read is, in my opinion, the best entry point.

Owens: Yes, there is some familial “violence”. And it appears representative of the history. In fact, corporal punishment in the family isn’t infrequent in human history (it is not so uncommon in Europe today, and it was not uncommon, I believe, a century ago in the USA). Perhaps this is an opportunity for the writer to confront his presentism and amerocentrism. That would allow the writer to engage this material in a less sanctimonious manner.

Dr. Owens accuses me of addressing the concerns of my colleagues about the violence in LLPSI in a “sanctimonious manner”. It was the point of this post to address common concerns raised about this book as a teaching tool by colleagues on Twitter and at my aforementioned CANE presentation, so that everyone can make informed decisions about their curriculum. I acknowledged that concerns around violence in a textbook used with children as young as 10 or 11 are reasonable, which they are – some people are comfortable with corporal punishment as comedy, some are not. Some are comfortable with corporal punishment in general, some are not. How ancient Romans or modern Europeans choose to discipline children is irrelevant to the discussion at hand and I expressed no judgement on that, whatever I may personally feel. I simply respect the freedom of colleagues to judge for themselves what works for them and their students in their classrooms. Also, I am indeed an American teaching to American children at the present time giving my opinion to fellow teachers at the present time, many of whom are undoubtedly American. I recognize my positionality and in no way attempt to hide from it – a quick Google search will tell anyone exactly who I am. And who I am and when I live undoubtedly informs how I read and teach a text in much the same way that Hans Ørberg’s status as a Danish man in the mid-20th century informed how he wrote the text, much as how Cicero being a Roman novus homo in the mid 1st century BCE informed how he wrote his letters and speeches. My readers are invited and encouraged to take my positionality into consideration as they should also do with Hans Ørberg as they would do with Cicero or any other author. For anyone to feign a sort of timeless, cultureless objectivity is surely folly.

The portrayal of women is not sexist; rather, it is Roman. Nevertheless, it is simply untrue that the female characters are unduly confined. It is difficult to think of ordinary careers or responsibilities that are more important than child-rearing. Significantly, the responsibility of childrearing in ancient Rome, typically fell to the mother. Aemilia’s work (and the assistance of Syra and Delia) are illustrative of the way things were in second century Rome. The writer may might not like it (and clearly does not), but he may not re-make Rome in his own image. Are there other examples of women in the ancient world doing other things, certainly! And good for them too! But an introductory textbook must present the culture under consideration to emphasize what is typical to them and strange to us – not what is exceptional within that culture and conforming to us. Furthermore, Aemilia discusses her complicated emotions regarding her brother, who is off at war, and her frustrations with her husband are clear; these make her less of a one-dimensional character. Lydia, who is able to read (!!), attempts to teach her fiancé Medus. I should not like to speculate as to why this significant point was omitted from the above essay.

So Dr. Owens is right, it *is* Roman – as in, yes, the portrayal of women in the book does indeed seem to reflect elite male Roman attitudes similar to those expressed in canonical authors such as Ovid or Martial. And also, those attitudes were and are sexist. Both are true. I can’t imagine that Dr. Owens would attempt to argue that Romans were not sexist, so I must have missed something here. As to what it means to be “unduly confined” I have no idea. Can, according to Owens, women be “duly” confined? He says the text is “illustrative of the way things were.” The way they were for whom? Every single woman in ancient Rome? Every elite woman? This is to some degree a corner that the book has written itself into by focusing primarily on one imaginary elite family when we know, in fact, that the realities of both elite and non-elite women often varied wildly (see for example the Vindolanda tablets, the poems of Sulpicia, the anonymous woman of the so-called Laudatio Turiae, the great business woman Eumachia of Pompeii, or the life of Saint Perpetua). And while it is certainly true that many womens’ choices were much constrained by the society they lived in and control over their own bodies was greatly infringed upon by men, this surely does NOT mean that women could not think for themselves and have their own opinions, and I feel more of that could and should have been included in the book. Likewise, evidence demonstrates that elite women *did* in fact receive education in ancient Rome and attention to the education of Aemilia, Iulia, and Lydia is a choice the author could have made but didn’t and one I attempt to address with my students via a close look at what the ancient sources actually say regarding the education of women (Capitulum XV – School in Ancient Rome Sources). Next, of course there is nothing wrong with women choosing to raise children, just as there is also nothing wrong with getting an education, or running a business or doing all of the above or any other choice a woman may want to make, then or now. 

I am not attempting to “remake Rome in my own image” as Owens asserts, but rather I want to help students understand the rich and complex reality that was the world of ancient Rome. In fact, this complaint by Owens is somewhat ironic as Ørberg himself admits to having modelled elements of the story in LLPSI on his own life, quite literally “remaking Rome in [his] own image”! (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iFKbhqTPjjQ) In the end, all teaching is a subjective act in which teachers mediate between the material and our students, emphasizing what we feel is important, and I am quite open about my process and the choices I make and why I make them.

Then, Dr. Owens states that “an introductory textbook must present the culture under consideration to emphasize what is typical to them and strange to us – not what is exceptional within that culture and conforming to us.” Must it? Who has written this rule? I was not introduced to this law upon being awarded my degrees or my teaching licence. I’m not saying he is necessarily wrong, that is certainly one way to design a textbook, but certainly not the only way either. I, instead, would argue that a textbook should aim to provide as complete a vision as possible of the culture under study, both those things typical AND exceptional to them, as well as those things strange AND conforming to us. I acknowledge that this is difficult for a single volume textbook aimed primarily at language instruction, but these blog posts were meant as ones of ideals – how could this excellent resource be made even better? Once again, Dr. Owens seems to think I’m anti-Ørberg when anyone who has seen me present or read my work knows that quite the opposite is true. I believe he did an outstanding job of creating a book that is at once broad and accessible and nuanced and subtle. I simply know it’s not perfect and I feel no compunction about engaging with the ways in which it falls short.

Finally, as I stated in the original post, there is indeed much nuance to the characters which does get revealed over time. If one reads all the way to the end of the book you find that Ørberg in fact does an excellent job of undermining some traditional elite Roman assumptions, especially in Chapters XXVIII, XXXII and XXXIII. But, as I stated in the post, some of this is unfortunately lost because many students and readers never make it that far. Indeed the examples Dr. Owens cites, Aemilia’s frustrations with her husband (p. 156-158), Lydia’s literacy (pp. 224-229) and Aemilia’s literacy and complicated feelings about her brother (p. 275-281) all come after the halfway point of the book and the last two well into the last third. Finally, Dr. Owens has in fact anticipated my discussion of Lydia in part IV of our blog posts on LLPSI, as the exception that makes the rule. The Lydia character is perhaps the most fascinating in the whole book, as a literate freedwomen and a Christian she serves as an excellent counterpoint to the vision we are offered of Aemilia. And yet, she only appears in 6 of 35 chapters compared to Aemilia who is present in 17 of them, when of course there would have been statistically far more non-elite than elite women in the Roman empire as a whole. LLPSI would be much enriched if we heard more about Lydia – it would be great to have a volume that gives us more of her and Medus’ backstory and what happens to them when they get to Greece.

Owens: Everyone is not depicted as “white”. Latin does not, as far as I know, have one term for a “white” person, so this is only quibbling about the kind of presentistic diversity wherein diversity is judged only by a predefined set of categories, beyond which no diversity can be said to exist. And yet, there is great diversity in the story for a rich Roman household. Yes, there were people of darker complexion in Rome in the second century. Yes, they could have appeared somewhere in the story. But it is also no surprise that they do not since the majority of people in Rome, and likely those persons in the households of the rich, were more representative of the regions that are already represented by Julius’ household. This is hardly a “glaring shortcoming”. If it does come up with students, it is an excellent opportunity for discussion. That is not a bad thing.

Dr. Owens is correct that Latin does not have a term for this because the Romans did not have a concept of a “white” person as we understand it, although they certainly did see and react to skin color in various ways. Also, we agree that there is in fact great diversity shown in Hans’ narrative. And he seems to agree that these are important discussions to have with our students. Finally, he himself acknowledges that people of various darker skin tones were present in ancient Rome at the time of the stories presented. Two of them at least, Syra and Syrus, even have names that suggest that would be the case. So I just wish that reality were better reflected in the illustrations. I’m not sure what makes that such a controversial stance.

Owens: There are not “repeated appearances” of Christian overtones in the book. It is referenced in one of thirty-five chapters. In that one chapter students read some Latin from an early translation of the New Testament. This is not taken from the Vulgate (as the writer incorrectly asserts) but from the Vetus Latina, since the Vulgate had not yet been written at the time of the story. There are many good pedagogical reasons to imbed such versus into the text, but I’ll limit myself to responding to the writer’s criticism.

Dr. Owens is mistaken here. There are, in fact, repeated appearances of Christian overtones in the book beyond just the one chapter. Christianity is directly referenced in the following places: Chapter XVI, vv. 129-150, again throughout all of the aforementioned Chapter XXVIII, and again at Chapter XXXI, vv. 142-147 and one last time in Chapter XXXII, vv. 59-75. And, as I said originally, that is perfectly appropriate. We agree that the ratio of Christian material to the book as a whole is in not of proportion for the time and place it is set and I agree that it is a fine choice of text for language pedagogy reasons as well. 

Dr. Owens is also mistaken about the version of the Bible used in Ørberg’s text. While it is true that the 4th century Vulgate of Saint Jerome did not yet exist at the time the stories take place, there exists no one set text of the Vetus Latina and the text LLPSI uses is, in fact, a slightly modified version of the Vulgate text (as Ørberg himself states in his LLPSI companion volume Latine Disco, p. 40) but he has slightly changed the grammar and vocabulary (and added punctuation) to fit with what he has already introduced. So, for example, Ørberg changes the line “Filia mea modo defuncta est… Et cum venisset Iesus in domum principis et vidisset tibicines et turbam tumultuantem dicebat…” (Vulgate, Matthew, 9.18, 9.23-4) to “Filia mea modo mortua est… Et veniens Iesus in domum principis, videns tibicines et turbam tumultuantem, dicebat…” (LLPSI, pp. 224-5, v. 68, vv. 70-72) changing the pluperfect subjunctive verbs to present participles, since the pluperfect subjunctive is not introduced until Chapter XXXIII, and replacing the word defuncta, which he has not introduced, with mortua, which he has. Also, since much of the Christian literature at this time was written in Greek rather than Latin and we are told that both Lydia and Medus are in fact Greek, it is much more likely that what she is actually would be reading him was in Greek, not Latin, but for pedagogy purposes Ørberg has given us the (modified) Latin – but in the end, it really doesn’t matter that much as LLPSI is not gospel, merely a story meant to be entertaining enough to keep the reader’s attention while teaching them Latin.

Owens: Firstly, the writer seem to be confused about the meaning of antidisestablishmentarianism, which – pace the condescending parenthetical definition – means ‘opposition to the withdrawal of any state support or recognition from any established church’. 

Dr. Owens is right about antidisestablishmentarianism. I was indeed confused – I evidently had learned the meaning of the word as the opposite of what it actually is. Oops. My mistake and I thank him for setting me straight on this. Never too late to learn something new, I always say! Not sure why he feels I was being “condescending” by including a (mistaken) definition of an uncommon word in parentheses, but he often seems to insinuate nefarious motives to my writing for reasons that are unclear.

Owens: In any case, the writer seems to think that “strong antidisestablishmentarianism [sic] (“separation of church and state”)” justifies or requires that Christianity not be mentioned in schools. But this is not true. The doctrine which the writer surely intended to reference (i.e., disestablishmentarianism) protects a state church against government overreach, and thus prevents public educators (as agents of the government) from coercing students to pray.

Finally, the separation of church and state in no way impedes teachers from discussing Christianity in an academic fashion, and it surely should provide no obstacle to and no cause for concern in the text under criticism. Indeed, what kind of education would a school provide students if it failed to acknowledge a religious movement with 2.5 billion adherents today and one that has figured so largely into international history for the last two millennia? How could anyone possibly teach about the dramatic societal changes in Late Antiquity, the causes of the Crusades, the art of the Renaissance, or the debacle of Henry VIII without at least teaching the basic tenants and history of Christianity? I suspect that there is a further confusion here and that the author did not mean exactly what he has suggested here because for a Latin teacher (a *Latin* teacher!) to suggest that this is somehow verboten, can be little more than the ignorant balderdash and buffoonery of one who cares more about his own brand of social ideology than actual education.

In his last paragraph, Dr. Owens has decided that I suggested that it is “verboten” to teach Christianity in an academic fashion in American schools, when in fact I said nothing of the kind. At no point do I say or even suggest that “separation of church and state justifies or requires Christianity not be mentioned in schools” as he claims. This is pure fantasy and I have no idea how he came away with this from anything I wrote. I have been teaching with this book for 10 years, reading this chapter with my students every time and I have no problem doing so. In fact I always include robust units on Christianity in the Roman world, first when we get to Chapter XVI and again when we get to Chapter XXVIII. Rather, what I did say is that some teachers and professors have told me the Christian themes make *them* nervous to teach with this book in *their* schools. The reality is, some teachers in the US do feel a need to stay away from any and all talk of modern religions and other “sensitive” or “personal” topics such as religion, politics, etc. out of an overabundance of caution. I am instead fortunate to teach in a very open and liberal school which gives me great trust and freedom to teach my class the way I see fit. But, it very much depends on where you teach. And because of that, teachers are sometimes made to feel it is safer to just avoid the topic of non-extinct religions completely. That is unfortunate and I agree that separation of church and state should not provide any obstacle to using this book or reading this chapter or teaching the history of Christianity in school, but again I trust my colleagues to know what works for them in their schools. Dr. Owens has come to some very strange and inaccurate conclusions of what I said about this topic based on what I actually wrote and, I invite him to read the original post again more carefully.


Finally, I’ve always been happy to engage with complicated issues directly, and willing to acknowledge when I am wrong, and where there is room for debate, and to discuss openly and honestly why I hold the positions I do, and to do so in the spirit of intellectual exchange. These blog posts were written in that same spirit. It is regrettable that Dr. Owens felt he had to resort to distortion, insinuation, and name calling to attempt to make his points over the reception of a textbook, but so be it.

What’s wrong with LLPSI, part 2

Today we have a guess post by Gregory Stringer, written with some input from myself.

As discussed in Part I, LLPSI is an outstanding language teaching and learning tool. And also, it is not without flaws in terms of both language instruction and content. In Part I we looked at its flaws as a tool for teaching language according to SLA principles and our best understanding as experienced teachers of best practices language instruction. In Part II, we look at some of the most glaring shortcomings of the book in terms of its content. While we argue that this book still presents a much richer, more nuanced picture of Roman society than perhaps any other book on the market, it nevertheless contains problematic material that cannot simply be brushed aside. Here they are in roughly chronological order of how they come up in the book.


1. Replicating Roman Ideologies

Almost all ancient texts contain ideologies that are rightfully abhorrent to modern readers, yet, of course, teaching with those texts doesn’t mean that we want our students to assume the ideologies contained within or that we personally endorse them because we teach them (i.e. Hopefully no one nowadays teaches De Bello Gallico because they want their students to grow up to lead a genocidal conquest). Rather we teach texts to learn more about the ancient world, its languages and customs, and to use those texts as jumping off points for constructive dialogue about the human condition, then and now. The same is true of any textbook – it is a tool for teaching and using a particular resource is not the same as an endorsement of all its ideology – though, understandably, that line can sometimes be more blurry with instructional materials written more recently. Nevertheless, the teacher must always carefully read the resources they provide and be prepared to discuss and deconstruct potentially harmful or controversial ideologies contained within any and all texts used in the classroom. This is perhaps slightly more complicated in a text like LLPSI, because in his attempt to teach culture in a method similar to the way he teaches vocabulary and grammar – i.e. implicitly via an inductive approach – Orberg embedded Roman ideology about a variety of topics including family life, enslavement, war, entertainment, and education into the storyline. LLPSI is generally careful to put ancient Roman ideologies into the mouths of his ancient Roman characters and these are (as far as I can tell) based on authentic ancient Roman textual sources (e.g. the extended discussion between Iulius and his wife Aemilia in Chapter XX about child-rearing and nursing is based on evidence from Aulus Gellius, Juvenal, and Tacitus inter alia). However, while these words spoken by the characters accurately replicate Roman ideologies (at least as held/voiced by the wealthy male elite) and are drawn from ancient sources, this could also unintentionally give the impression to less experienced or less skilled readers (or those who don’t make it all the way to the end of the narrative where more nuance is revealed) of an alignment with or an endorsement of these Roman values. 

Also, there are a few places in the book where the character/narrator distinction breaks down. For example, at the close of Chapter XXVII when the paterfamilias Iulius has finished threatening his tenant farmer (colonus) with eviction if he doesn’t pay back rent and his tenet shepherd with corporal punishment for having allowed his sheep to wander in the nearby fields, the omniscient narrator quips “Etsi dominus severus existimatur, tamen inhumanus non est” (“Even if he is deemed a strict master, he is nevertheless not inhumane”). While the exact status of the colonus is not revealed in the text, we know that Iulius is an enslaver of others and I hope anyone teaching agrees that enslavement is, ipso facto, inhumane. And, while there is much material in LLPSI, especially in the supplemental readings of the colloquia personarum and the fabellae Latinae, which directly provide a portrait of the brutal reality of enslavement from the point of view of the enslaved as well as the surely complicate ways in which this played out in their individual lives, lines like this run the risk of feeding into an “enslaver apology” wherein the idea that some enslavers were not as cruel as others works to undermine the terrible reality that is enslavement, as much in the Roman world as anywhere or at anytime.

Lastly on this point, as with any book, the process of selection – what gets included and what gets left out – is necessarily an act of ideology. From Chapter I (“Imperium Romanum”) of LLPSI it is a Roman worldview we are presented with via a map of the Mediterranean with the outline of the Roman Empire and a discussion of what was and was not in the Roman Empire and throughout, anyone outside of the empire is repeatedly and emphatically described as “barbarians” (barbari).

2. Centering of Roman elites

The characters at the center of LLPSI are a wealthy Roman family, in this case, that of the aforementioned Lucius Iulius Balbus of Tusculum. While the book doesn’t give us much detail on Iulius’ career, we are told that he lives in a large villa in Tusculum and is the dominus of 100 enslaved people, most of whom never appear nor are named. In fact, chapter 2 teaches students the genitive largely through this relationship of enslavement “Iulius dominus Medi est. Medus servus Iūliī est.” (“Iulius is the enslaver of Medus, Medus is the enslaved of Iulius”) etc. While ultimately Iulius is decidedly not the “hero” or “good guy” of the book, in fact quite the opposite – it is rather Medus an enslaved man who escapes from Iulius’ household with his freedwoman girlfriend Lydia that the reader is meant to “cheer for”- but that is only slowly revealed throughout the course of the continuing story and many students or classes never get that far. Also, the intentional portrayal of the rich Roman Iulius as the book’s villain is somewhat undermined by the presence of Cornelius as the “good” neighbor. Cornelius consistently appears as a more thoughtful father and husband than Iulius, but the narrative glosses over his own status as a Roman enslaver because he is not as wealthy as Iulius. Does the fact that Cornelius only enslaves 10 people as opposed to 100 make him a better person? That said, in the final chapter of the narrative (XXXIV) Cornelius is also revealed as much less “humane” than he at first seems, as he revels in a description of violent gladiator games and a deadly chariot race. 

3. Violence

In fact, while we would argue that LLPSI is, overall, much less violent than say the Cambridge Latin Course, much of the early narrative focuses on Iulius’ domination of his 3 children and the enslaved in his household. The eldest son, 9 year-old Marcus is constantly bullying and hitting his younger siblings provoking corporal punishment from his father. All this familial violence is presented in a humorous way and some teachers have reasonably raised concerns about teaching sibling violence and corporal punishment as comedy with students. Likewise, in Chapter IV some of Iulius’ money has gone missing and Iulius calls in the two most trusted enslaved men of his household to question them about it and threatens violence on the perpetrator. One of them, Medus, has indeed taken Iulius’ money and disappears and Iulius’ pursuit of him and his planned punishment are a recurring subtheme of the entire book which is treated somewhat comically in the early going in imitation of Roman comedy in a way that likewise makes some teachers/readers uncomfortable. 

4. The sexist portrayal of women. 

The women in LLPSI are consistently portrayed and described in highly problematic ways. While we can attribute elements of this, like the violence described above, to verisimilitude of a Roman setting and a replication of attitudes of canonical Roman writers, the level of misogyny present in the structure and narration of LLPSI is nevertheless inexcusable, indefensible, and avoidable. For example, female characters are described largely by their physical appearance in a way the men are typically not – e.g. in chapter six the words for pretty (pulcher) and ugly (foedus) are introduced through descriptions of the noses of the enslaved woman Syra and the young daughter Iulia. Furthermore, almost all of the dialogue, narration, and actions of the female characters is confined to so-called “women’s topics” – love, childbearing, jewelry, etc. Likewise, whereas much attention is paid to describing the life and education of the boys, we hear nothing about Iulia’s present or future as a young girl in ancient Rome and we only hear about the mother Aemilia’s courtship, marriage, and childbearing. And so, just because canonical Roman male authors often present a world which severely circumscribes the universe of Roman women (and even that evidence is often contradictory), we have plenty of other evidence – textual, inscriptional, archeological – that presents a much more dynamic reality for Roman women and this, and womens’ perspectives more generally, could and should be represented in the text.

5. Everyone depicted as “white”

While this is a result of the illustrations rather than anything written in the text per se, all the characters are drawn as pale skinned “white,” when we know from our sources that the reality of second century CE ancient Rome would have looked much different. This is also despite ostensible diversity of the characters, especially enslaved people of Iulius’ household as based on their names or backstories (Syra and Syrus, presumably coming from Syria, Medus we learn comes from Athens, etc.). Regardless, the book could certainly use more diversity overall and it’s unfortunate that the images in LLPSI don’t accurately reflect the diversity already present in the text.

6. Christian overtones

This is an issue that seems to come up especially in American public schools where strong antidisestablishmentarianism (“separation of church and state”) has led to a situation where many public school teachers are afraid to even mention anything remotely related to modern religions (although they will happily talk about Greco-Roman polytheism and mythology all day without a second thought!). Therefore, the repeated appearance of Christianity in the text makes some teachers nervous, especially in Chapter 28 when the freedwoman Lydia tries to convert her boyfriend Medus to Christianity via extended readings of the Vulgate (the Latin Bible). LLPSI does introduce all the Roman gods as well, though with little mention of lived Roman religious practice, and though the total amount of Christian material present is probably not actually disproportionate for the setting (about 1 chapter out of 35), some feel, perhaps not wrongly, that the scene at the end of Chapter XVI where Lydia and Medus’ ship is seemingly saved from a storm by Lydia’s prayers to her “dominus” more than subtly hint where the author’s actual sympathies lie.

We’ve covered a range of issues, but we’re aware that some readers may find other inclusions, or omissions, problematic. In recognising the text as an artefact, and a product of Ørberg’s own context as well, a teacher may find the text problematic enough to choose not to teach it. For our part, we both teach using LLPSI, and in part 3 we’ll address how we both, in different teaching contexts, navigate and seek to ameliorate these difficulties.

What’s wrong with LLPSI, Part 1

(This post co-written with Gregory Stringer)

I (Seumas) am happily on record, and will continue to say, that Ørberg’s Lingua Latina per se Illustrata, and in particular volume 1, Familia Romana, is one of the best language textbooks in any language. Not just that, but it is so by a very wide margin. It demonstrates a deep and profound instantiation of the Direct Method, and succeeds very admirably at being ‘per se illustrata’.

However, it’s not perfect. Some of its faults are innate – a textbook cannot escape being a textbook, for instance. Others are characteristic of the text itself. In part one, we are going to look at what we think are some of its major drawbacks on the language side of the equation. In part two, we will explore some of the more content oriented problems in the book.

  1. Assuming that one you understand it, you know it.

Ørberg does a really good job of introducing new language features, illustrating or exemplifying them in a way that makes them understandable based on the building blocks you’ve had so far, and then covering a range of forms and permutations. Chapter 17 is a good example as he walks you through exemplars of all persons and number of the passive present across the conjugations. However, there is this assumption in Ørberg that knowledge is binary – you go from ‘not knowing’ to ‘knowing’, and then you know it. Which means that later on the text always assumes that you know a feature you have been taught. Humans don’t learn, or know, like this. The process is far messier. Familia Romana would be a better book if it had a lot more redundancy built in.

2. Grammar driven curriculum

Related to this, FR is shaped and structured around incremental acquisition of grammar: morphology and syntax. We also have good reason to believe that this isn’t how humans acquire language, and so FR is still shaped by a grammar-driven curriculum. This is why I say often that LLPSI is not a ‘CI-book’ – it’s not a book that was written based on the idea or principle of ‘Comprehensible Input’, or the practices that shape contemporary communicative-based language teaching. It is, or can be, comprehensible input in the sense that it is a wonderful text that many people can read and understand without much help if any, but it is not a “CI-based” method of teaching. It reflects, accurately, Ørberg’s understanding of the Nature Method. As best as we can tell, Ørberg did try to apply some understanding of acquisition orders, based on other languages, to his sequencing, but there is still very much a sequencing going on.

3. Vocab and volume

LLPSI has a tonne of vocab. Not too much, I don’t think. I’d rather students got the 1800 or so words of FR compared to the smaller vocabulary counts in other textbook offerings. However, for the amount of vocab he presents, it should be a longer book. Or it should have companion books that introduce no new vocab or grammar, but just tell other stories (yes, I’m aware of the supplements. What if we had more, and more diverse, supplements?).

4. Some grammatical features come too late

The subjunctive, in particular, appears quite late in the book, giving students inadequate space, in this volume, to attempt to assimilate and acquire its forms and usages. Similarly, students don’t meet the 1st and 2nd persons until chapter 15, and tenses other than the present until 18, when they finally do come thick-and-fast. Any curriculum is going to introduce some things early, some things late (unless you choose a totally different organising principle), but these seem particularly difficult.


Doesn’t a written corpus distort a spoken language?

Yes, but that’s okay.

In the comments on my recent post about Authentic Language, Alan Wood asks, “What difference does it make that we largely have ‘writing patterns’ rather than ‘speech patterns’?”

I think this is neither a feature nor a bug, just a given, of both what we have, and what we are undertaking. So, when we talk about speaking and acquiring Latin, or Ancient Greek, or another historical language, the “idealised corpus of speech” which serves as the objective basis for acquiring the abstract ‘language’, is simply the corpus of written texts we have. There is no ongoing native-speaker community-spoken community of the ancient language as it was. And, we do know well that they way language is represented in writing always differs from how it exists in the moment of speech and conversation. If there’s any doubt for you of that, listen to an audio clip of a conversation and try to transcribe it verbatim.

However, what is the language we’re trying to acquire? It’s the language of the written corpus. We’re (or at least I) not trying to reconstruct a vernacular oral language behind the texts that we have. Any such reconstruction of some kind of “this is how it was truly spoken” involves a level of speculation and tentative reconstruction. Not that this is impossible at the micro level, but I have rather large doubts about it at a macro level.

Rather, we are being acculturated and inculcated into a fossilised representation of language, embodied in texts. There will always be an inherent conservatism, then, in ‘living’ Latin, or Greek, etc., because the corpus is a norming norm for all new speakers.

However, the norm should be broad. We do get conversational and colloquial elements in ancient texts. You see strong elements of conversationality, colloquiality, and the like, even when stylised, e.g. in the comedies. You get a different register of writing in the sub- and non-literary papyri. For a biblical studies student, you cannot get a good sense of style and idiom if all you’ve read is the New Testament. To repeat my common trope, it is like learning all your French from 20,000 leagues under the sea and then wondering why you can’t accurately judge register, tone, style, idiom.

Written language is a standardised expression of spoken language, and serves as a good standard to model contemporary communicative language upon.

You’ll get it wrong – misrepresenting authentic language in communicative teaching

Yet another part of our series on objections to communicative methods

One objection that you sometimes hear to more communicative methods is that those who are using historical languages productively will ‘get it wrong’ and thus be creating unrepresentative/incorrect language data for learners. This is another in my And especially that this is self-reinforcing – incorrect language features are used by incomplete learners, and create a hybrid monster that is “communicative historical language X” which actively harms people learning “historical language X” (feel free to substitute in your Latin, ancient Greek, biblical Hebrew, etc., as needed).

My response to this kind of objection is threefold: Yes, it is a danger; the benefit far outweighs the danger; teachers have a duty.

Firstly, I think there is a genuine danger here though I think it’s vastly over-represented by people who do make this objection. Speakers of Latin and ancient Greek are almost all incomplete learners. Some of us are more incomplete than others! And so mistakes are made. And sometimes mistakes are made and perpetuated, within the speaking community, in a way that makes me cringe.

However, no one I know is incognisant of this danger, no one cavalier, no one thinks it something to just shrug off. Perhaps there are people with that attitude, I don’t know. Our goal, almost always, is to pursue a representation of the language in our communication that reflects and approaches the patterns of the literature corpus we are interested in. That’s the norming norm for our situation.

The benefit of communicative approaches, and particularly in terms of actively speaking and conversing and writing in these languages far outweighs the danger of bad representation. If you think the danger is, “oh, a learner will think that XYZ is standard but it’s not”, what exactly damage is that going to cause? They’re unlikely to go and misread some text that does have the standard feature. They’re no more likely, when it comes to biblical studies for instance, to get things wrong than the woefully less complete and accurate representation of the language that a non-communicative student of equal attainment has. Essentially, someone who speaks Latin is still far and away going to end up a better reader of Latin, even if their speech perpetuates some non-standard features.

Thirdly, teachers have a duty. This goes back to the norming norm – insofar as we are aiming to reflect a particular corpus (e.g. classical Latin. historically broad Latin. Koine Greek. Classical Athenian Greek. Greek across 2000 years. that corpus can be narrower or broader), our language communicatively should aim to reflect that. Which means in terms of self-monitoring and editing and particular production of learning materials, I do think teachers have an obligation to be checking and correcting their own materials to those standards of the corpus. It’s why I’m always interested in the answer of, “who uses this structure?”, “is this attested?”, “attested where and by who?”.

In sum, we ought to strive to reflect an accurate representation of the language as we find it in our literatures, while not letting this paralyse us from actively using the language, which is a paramount way by which we improve our individual acquisition of that very same representation of the language.

On the desire to speak about matters grammatical

Part of an ongoing series on objections to communicative methods

In my last post on these three inter-connected questions (those who don’t want to speak), I discussed the issue of those who object to the ‘content’ of communicative approaches – e.g. the desire not to speak about daily trivia. In this I turn to a similar but again distinct question – what is the ‘nature’ or ‘object’ of language instruction more broadly. Is the point of language instruction in historical languages to teach “grammar, and the analysis of language and texts along grammatical lines”? Or is it something else?

I want to say firmly that it’s something else – that the purpose of teaching a historical language is that students acquire that language as a language, with at least the concomitant proficiency in reading texts in that language, but preferably also some competency in listening, speaking, and writing.

If that is true, then we can ask a separate question about ‘grammar’ – or really two questions. Again, (1) what ‘is’ grammar, as it is taught, and (2) what place could, should, or must grammar have in our classes.

These are actually quite large questions. And the answers I give here may not be shared by all, but I’m articulating what I call “my considered and informed opinion”.

Grammar, as it’s typically taught and understood in classical languages, is a systematic description (descriptive!) of the language as it was used by its speakers and authors, as evidenced in a particular corpus of texts. It is language talking about language. And for that reason it’s incredibly useful, because one of the things that we might like to talk about is how language means. Having a vocabulary, and an understanding, of what nouns and verbs are, what endings are and do, how adverbs function, how clauses relate, etc., allows us to have conversations about how a language is working.

That’s why grammar is metalanguage – it involved a technical (domain-specific!) set of vocabulary useful to have if you want to talk about language itself. And most of our grammar is embedded in the history of Latin literature itself, since grammar as a field emerged among Latin and Greek authors.

But it’s very important to note that the analysis and study of language moved on from Latin grammar and philology to become Linguistics. We now call the systemic and scientific study of language(s) “Linguistics”, and the grammar traditions still incumbent in classics departments are often woefully ignorant of modern linguistics, carrying on with fossilised understandings of how languages work (often highly prescriptive), neglectful of how applying linguistics to Latin and Greek would yield, and already has yielded not only new insights, but in some cases overturn traditional categories and ways of talking. Traditional grammar is often quite bad grammar.

So, grammar is language for talking about language, and that’s quite a useful thing to have, especially since we are very interested in language! But what place should grammar have?

The Grammar-Translation method fundamentally operates on the maxim that if you teach people to understand grammar (and practice applying it in translation exercise), then they will learn the language. Several centuries of experience, and the work of modern SLA theory, strongly suggests that grammar is not the mechanism by which acquisition occurs. So we are left asking, “if grammar is not the mechanism by which acquisition takes place, what role could it have?”

I do think grammar can play a positive role in the language learning space, but before I get on to that let me qualify by saying, it is entirely possible to teach for acquisition without utilising or having a place for explicit grammar at all. Some teachers appear to have adopted that position, and it may be that you have learners who do not want to learn grammar. They don’t have to.

But you may also have learners who really do want to learn grammar in one form or another. So here’s a range of things that I think grammar can do, and you might want it to do.

  • Grammar can be a means of making things comprehensible.

Just like quickly glossing things in English can short-cut having a 20minute circumlocution to get across your meaning staying in language, having the tool of metalanguage can quickly and directly make something understood. This only works if you teach some grammar along the way, but it works. I’d rather use grammar to make something comprehensible in a sentence, than not.

  • Grammar allows you to talk about language use

Precisely because grammar is metalanguage, if you want to talk about language as a topic, if you want to talk about how language means, then this is a domain that learners need to acquire. I wrote in yesterday’s post about how I became quite domain-competent in talking about grammar in Mongolian – it’s because I (and my students) wanted to discuss language.

  • You can do grammar in the target language.

There’s no reason you can’t do grammar talk in the target language. Indeed, since students are likely learning a lot of this metalanguage vocabulary for the first time, doing it in the target language might be even more beneficial. So, in my Latin classes, we do talk about nomen, verbum temporale, modus coniunctivus, et cetera. While my Greek classes get subjected to questions like ἐπὶ τίνος πτώσεως ἐστιν αὕτη ἡ λέξις and the like. You can do communication about grammar in the language, thus creating more opportunities for comprehensible input.

  • You can equip students to access technical resources and secondary literature.

I was asked in a separate question about how I equip students to access various resources. If someone goes on to ‘higher’ study (caveats must apply), and to read technical commentaries, grammars, etc., etc., they will need to come to a mastery of traditional terminology. This is one reason I tend to work on grammar in both the target language and in English – if you’ve learnt both παρατατικὸς χρόνος and imperfect tense-form, you aren’t going to have a problem either discussing it in Greek, or reading a commentary talk about why something is imperfect.

  • You can sideline/background grammar.

One of the things I have tended to do now is to leave it to students to read information on grammar in English, or watch videos that I have produced (examples here), outside our main instructional time. Especially if they feel the need to get that kind of handle on the language (which many do), they can do that, it’s all there, but then we are freer in our limited instructional time to focus on operating in the language.

You don’t have to abandon grammar to do communicative methods, but you do need to let go of doing grammar as a primary mechanism for learners to acquire the language. If you want to teach grammar as the content and goal of language instruction, without acquisition, you are better off designing a course that is “Linguistics of Historical Latin” and adopting full-scale a linguistic approach to the language which presumes that none of your learners have, or will acquire, any facility in the language. That is totally fine. Indeed, I wish there were more places that in fact did that. There is a woeful absence of teaching Linguistics applied to historical languages.

But grammar? Yes, teach some grammar. Just teach it appropriately, and for its fit purpose, and without thinking it leads to acquisition directly, but as a means of talking about language for those who want to do so.